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What is Polypharmacy?

Polypharmacy refers to actively taking more than five medications at one time. These medications are most often prescriptions, but can also include over-the-counter drugs or supplements that have been deemed necessary for a chronic health condition.

Managing several medications each day can be overwhelming, especially for the elderly population, who is the primary age group subject to polypharmacy

In most cases, unnecessary cases of polypharmacy can be addressed through proper communication between healthcare providers. But if you or your loved one is experiencing polypharmacy, it is also vital to educate yourself on what polypharmacy is, and the steps you can take to avoid it. 

Polypharmacy Basics

While the scientific community does not have a universal definition for polypharmacy, it ultimately involves taking multiple medications, often prescribed by different providers, and usually for multiple chronic illnesses. The term is typically used for people who take at least five different medications on a daily basis, though some medications may even be taken twice or three times daily. Some of these medications may not be directly necessary for the treatment of an illness, but may help alleviate symptoms of the condition. Moreover, different doctors will prescribe several prescriptions for the same symptoms, not realizing the patient is already being treated. 

In 2018, 39% of seniors were involved in polypharmacy. As one’s age increases, they become more susceptible to polypharmacy by becoming more prone to various health conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and other chronic issues requiring medication.

Why Polypharmacy Happens

Polypharmacy happens when people are treated by more than one doctor for complex diseases and there is a lack of cross-talk between providers. Patients must typically see multiple specialists for treatment of chronic conditions, and without proper communication between different offices about that patient’s medical history and current medications, prescriptions are inappropriately prescribed. Whether multiple medications are given to treat the same symptom, or adverse drug-drug interactions occur, the result is usually one or more medications that should not have been prescribed in the first place. 

This is an oversight that can happen all too easily without efficient record management on the part of the providers, as well as without the patient’s own awareness of their regular medication regimen. 

Before the technological age of electronic medical records and online patient portals, all medical files were kept on paper and in file cabinets; as a result, it was easy for something to get lost and mistranslated amongst doctors and nurses. But even with the advancements made in record-keeping today, one wrong button click of a button or one missed email update can result in polypharmacy. 

With as much as 12% of the U.S. population experiencing polypharmacy, it becomes up to patients to help ensure they are not victims of these oversights. 

Risks of Polypharmacy

Polypharmacy becomes risky when medications are poorly managed at home.  Oftentimes, older patients will simply lay out their prescription bottles on the counter as a way to remember to take them, not taking advantage of medication management systems. As a result, it’s not uncommon for seniors to make mistakes when taking their prescriptions.

Even with a reminder note tacked onto the fridge with a magnet or a weekly pill case to guide which medications should be taken when, a lot of older patients tend to forget to take their medication, which can result in serious consequences beyond just missing a dose. In other scenarios, people may even ignore the instructions on the bottles, taking all of their medications at the same time with or without food in efforts to consolidate their routine and make the process easier.

With polypharmacy, potentially dangerous drug interactions can also go unnoticed. Such scenarios are especially likely when the provider doesn’t make enough of an effort to communicate with the patient about medications being prescribed. While informed consent is a pillar of patient care, it can sometimes be neglected to reduce the effort needed to ensure the patient understands their regimen. When this happens, multiple medications may be prescribed for the same symptoms of the same condition, when just one prescription would have been enough. 

When mixing the wrong drugs or taking too much of one medication, dangerous or even fatal side effects can occur. Some drug reactions may also cause long-term internal damage to the patient’s liver or kidneys without presenting visible symptoms, making it all the more important to be aware of the risks involved in polypharmacy. 

Preventing Polypharmacy

There are several things you can do to prevent unnecessary polypharmacy and take initiative with your own health: 

Be Aware of Signs and Reactions to Polypharmacy

The most common signs of an adverse drug-drug reaction are tiredness, confusion, hallucinations, dizziness, loss of appetite, and skin rashes. Adverse drug interactions may also cause anxiety, depression, or intense excitability. It can be hard to recognize these symptoms, especially if they onset gradually, but keeping a journal about what medications you take when and how you feel over the next few hours after a dose may reveal helpful information about possible interactions. 

The signs of a prescription overdose are slightly different than drug-drug interactions, and can include confusion, extreme behavior changes, slurred speech, or an irregular heartbeat. If you notice extreme behavior changes, it could be possible that you are taking too much medication, or mixing medications that should not be taken together. 

Seek medical advice or medical attention if any of these symptoms become severe, especially if you are just starting on a new medication for the first time. 

Be Proactive About Tracking Medications

You should always make it a point to not just track what medications are being taken, but also what those medications are for, dosage instructions, and possible interactions. 

Make sure all of your providers have an up to date record of these medications at all times--always bring this record with you when you go in for an appointment, even if it’s just a routine visit. 

Take Initiative Toward Conscious Medication Management

Coming up with a proper medication management system is essential for preventing unnecessary polypharmacy. One of the easiest ways to do this is with the use of an automated pill dispenser. 

Hero offers an automatic pill dispenser that serves as an easy to use, integrated med management system. When it’s time for medication to be taken, Hero will sort and dispense the proper dose, and alert the individual with a blinking light and a friendly chime. With the Hero app, notifications can also be sent to the patient’s and the caregiver’s device, helping to make sure that doses aren’t missed. 

The Hero pill dispenser can store, sort, and dispense up to 90 day’s worth of 10 medications, and can also help you manage an additional 10 medications in the app. You can use the Hero app to program any medication schedule, and it will even notify you when it’s time for a refill.

Hero takes matters beyond pill dispensing and offers a streamlined medication management system, which can not only help increase safety when it’s time to take medication, but also provides a dependable place to store records and information about medications are being taken, what they’re being taken for, and if there may be a contraindication present that wasn’t previously apparent. 

Try Hero Today

Taking multiple medications isn’t always a bad thing -- however, mismanaging these medications can put countless patients at risk. 

If you are a caregiver or a patient and are worried about polypharmacy, try Hero for peace of mind. We can help you and your loved one stay on top of your medication management routine, so you’re not only on track about prescriptions, but you’re also informed about and in control of health as a whole.

Sources:

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19552494/ 
  2. https://www.freedomcareny.com/posts/what-is-polypharmacy
  3. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2019/0701/p32.html
  4. https://www.uspharmacist.com/article/polypharmacy
  5. https://www.rasmussen.edu/degrees/health-sciences/blog/what-is-polypharmacy/
  6. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17512433.2019.1615442

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The contents of the above article are for informational and educational purposes only. The article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified clinician with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or its treatment and do not disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking it because of information published by us.