When a patient is using five or more medications it is defined as “polypharmacy.” Polypharmacy is more common in older patients, in fact it is estimated that polypharmacy affects 30-40% of elderly patients, because it is typically a result of having multiple medical problems.
This can be a potentially harmful problem, especially for patients receiving treatment for multiple concurrent medical conditions. Often times, multiple medications are recommended to treat one condition, such as with congestive heart failure. In some instances medications can be added for symptomatic relief or to treat the side effects of another medication.
If patients are seeing many different doctors for the same medical problem this can also lead to polypharmacy.
As a family medicine and geriatric medicine specialist, I’m always reminding patients how to manage polypharmacy and avoid the negative consequences, such as the burden of taking multiple medications, greater healthcare costs, increased risk of bad side effects, drug interactions, improper administration of medications, disability, and multiple geriatric syndromes (memory problems, falls, and incontinence).
Tips for managing polypharmacy:
- Keep an accurate and updated list of all of your medications (prescribed, over the counter, herbal products, and supplements)
- Understand why you are taking each medication and know their side effects
- Periodically discuss your medication regimen with your doctor and ask if there are any medications you can discontinue
- Take all medications as prescribed
- Use tools to simplify medication use such as weekly or daily pill boxes