Generics Were Most Popularly Prescribed Drugs in 2010
Americans are aching, aging, and overweight—or so prescription drug sales suggest. The top 10 most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States include painkillers, anti-diabetes pills, statins used to treat high cholesterol, and blood-pressure-lowering drugs. That's according to the latest report on U.S. medication use, published Tuesday by the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. More than 131 million prescriptions were dispensed for hydrocodone, the generic form of the painkiller Vicodin, last year, making it the best-selling drug. For the first time, all top 10 drugs were generics; these medicines, which are cheaper than brand-name drugs, now make up 78 percent of dispensed prescriptions. That shift contributed to a slowdown in drug spending, which increased only 2.3 percent in 2010, compared to 5.1 percent in 2009. At the same time, the number of patients starting new drug treatments for chronic conditions declined by 3.4 million. "This has the potential to impact patients' health," Michael Kleinrock, the institute's director of research development, told the Associated Press. "If they're delaying necessary care, that could be pretty bad for their health."
A Doctor's Practical Guide to Prescription Drugs
A study of nearly 200,000 outpatient electronic prescriptions published last year in the Journal of General Internal Medicine drew a stunning conclusion: nearly 3 in 10 new prescriptions were never filled at the pharmacy. To make matters worse, patients who pick up their medications frequently find the instructions difficult to understand, family physician Kenny Lin writes for U.S. News. There is little consistency in how pharmacies format their prescription labels, which can lead to confusion if a patient uses more than one pharmacy. Taking several medications is even more challenging. According to a recent report in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, only 15 percent of older adults were able to correctly consolidate a 7-drug regimen into 4 doses per day, and adults with lower literacy or less formal education were even less capable of doing so.
The good news is that efforts are underway to design standard prescription labels that are easier to read and follow; the bad news is that these commonsense changes probably won't be coming to your pharmacy any time soon. So what can you do to make sure that you and your doctor are on the same page regarding your prescriptions?
First, don't be afraid to ask how much a new medication costs. If you can't afford it, chances are you won't take it. A previous Healthcare Headaches post discusses several options for saving money on medications, including substituting older medications or generics. Also, make a point to communicate concerns about unwanted side effects; your doctor can usually manage these by lowering the dose or switching to a different drug. [Read more: A Doctor's Practical Guide to Prescription Drugs.]
- Managing Your Pain: How to Use Prescription Drugs Without Becoming Addicted
- 4 Ways to Avoid Dangerous Drug Errors
Overmedication: Are Americans Taking Too Many Drugs?
Socrates once declared that medicine "acts as both remedy and poison" and that "this charm, this spellbinding virtue, this power of fascination, can be—alternately or simultaneously—beneficent or maleficent." Modern America clearly appreciates the benefits. Today, a full 61 percent of adults use at least one drug to treat a chronic health problem, a nearly 15 percent rise since 2001. More than 1 in 4 seniors gulp down at least five medications daily. The trend has multiple causes: a spike in diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis related to obesity; revised medical guidelines that treat high blood sugar, hypertension, and high cholesterol sooner; and a multibillion-dollar push by pharmaceutical companies to speak directly to consumers about the payoff in trusting our hearts to Lipitor, say, or taking Boniva to help stop bone loss.
Therapeutic advances have, no question, proved lifesaving for many. Heart disease deaths have dropped steadily over the past 15 years, for example, thanks in large part to cholesterol-lowering statins and clot-busting drugs administered during heart attacks and strokes. But a growing chorus of experts worries that one unintended effect of all the pharmacological success is that many people may be blithely taking drugs they don't need, potentially setting themselves up for severe consequences. Clinical trials that prove a medicine safe and effective may demonstrate nothing about long-term risks or whether it benefits elderly folks or people with multiple health issues; usually new drugs are tested for just three or so years in a few thousand middle-age adults with a single particular problem. Given that a drug's serious side effects might show up only after months or years on the market, someone whose dangerous heart disease can't be controlled by existing meds has a much clearer incentive to try a new drug than people with a mild condition. [Read more: Overmedication: Are Americans Taking Too Many Drugs?]
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