5 Things You Need to Know About Overmedication

By Ernst Lamothe Jr.

Physician Stephen Ryan, medical director of ElderONE, an all-inclusive care for the elderly, which is part of Rochester Regional Health.
Physician Stephen Ryan, medical director of ElderONE, an all-inclusive care for the elderly, which is part of Rochester Regional Health.

While the topic of opioids continues to be on the front of the news, America has another drug epidemic: the overmedication of seniors, or polypharmacy. Researchers estimate that 25 percent of people aged 65 to 69 take at least five prescription drugs to treat chronic conditions, a figure that jumps to nearly 46 percent for those between 70 and 79, according to the Kaiser Health Network.

Doctors say it is common to encounter patients taking more than 20 drugs to treat acid reflux, heart disease, depression or insomnia or other disorders.

“The problem can lead to unwanted side effects, additional health problems, excessive health care costs and, in some cases, unnecessary death,” said physician Stephen Ryan, medical director of ElderONE, an all-inclusive care for the elderly, which is part of Rochester Regional Health.

Ryan gives five important tips that could prevent overmedication of seniors.

1. Have your medication list with you

Because seniors often take multiple medications, it can be difficult to remember the name, dosage and function. The more information your provider has, the more accurately they can pinpoint any potential adverse effects

“As a geriatric doctor, I see overuse all the time,” said Ryan. “Medication just becomes something that people just rely on without thinking about all the factors that go into their body once they take it.”

Ryan also suggests seniors keep a list of when they take the medication as well. It can be useful and help prevent overlapping use, while also making sure to consistently update your list with any new medication.

2. Take your medication bottles to the pharmacy.

A 2015 National Institute of Health report found that the share of Americans of all ages who regularly took at least five prescription drugs nearly doubled between 2000 and 2012, from 8 percent to 15 percent. Another way to keep track and monitor medication is bringing the bottles to the pharmacy especially if you were just prescribed new medication.

“There are medications that can sound the same but have dramatically different dosages and functions. There can be so much confusion and that is when large problems can begin,” said Ryan, who is also the senior medical director for geriatric medicine at Rochester Regional Health. “Bringing in not only your list, but the actual bottles that show the dosage can be helpful to the doctor or pharmacist when you ask followup questions.”

3. Know the side effect profile of your medications

We have gotten so used to hearing the long list of side effects for medication in commercials that it becomes background noise to the visuals that are playing. It may not be that big of a deal when you are only taking one medication. But with multiple, it can cause life-altering issues.

“You need to know all the side effects of the drugs you are taking,” added Ryan. “We have seniors who are taking nine medications and some side effects trigger problems that were supposed to be solved by other medication.”

4. Ask before taking

Just because you can pick up a medication without a doctor’s prescription doesn’t mean you should. It’s easy to pick up aspirin, ibuprofen, and other medications without having to speak with a pharmacist. However, simply making your own decision has led to massive health ailments for seniors.

“If you are not careful, some of these medications you take can affect kidney and liver function among other things,” said Ryan. “It may interfere with medication you are already taking, or the dosage may be higher than you should be taking considering your other medications. We have a culture of taking medication as a country, which is another issue that we should deal with at some point. But seniors especially just can’t pick up whatever they want at a drug store.”

There could be a concern about combing various medication. It isn’t something that you should be deciding on your own. If you are taking something and are worried about the effects of the new medications, you must speak directly to your doctor or pharmacist.

“Don’t be afraid to call someone if you have a question because sometimes asking questions too late can have disastrous consequences,” said Ryan.

5. Minimize the number of providers and pharmacists

Keeping the number of doctors and pharmacies to a minimum is better for you and better for the providers who must coordinate care. The more doctors you or your love ones see, the more likely you can have an adverse drug reaction.

“Even though we have decreased issues with this because of electronic records, it still helps if you are not seeing too many providers,” added Ryan.