By Nancy Valko
When I first started out as a nurse in the late 1960s, I saw several patients admitted to determine why they had “mental status changes”, such as confusion. One of my first duties on admission was to make a list of medications the patient was taking.
I was alarmed to find some of these patients, usually elderly, were taking a large number of medications and some were similar and/or had potential interactions with other medications. When I first brought this to the attention of a doctor, he was skeptical until he read one of the patients’ lists.
The result was that he reevaluated every medication and temporarily stopped all medications that were not crucial. When the patient rapidly improved and went home with a much reduced list of medications, he and I shared this with other doctors and many other such patients then rapidly improved.
However, according to a December 12, 2017 article from Kaiser Health News titled “An Overlooked Epidemic: Older Americans Taking Too Many Unneeded Drugs”, such problems with medications continue to exist in our fast-paced health care system and older people continue to be especially at risk.
As the article states:
“At least 15 percent of seniors seeking care annually from doctors or hospitals have suffered a medication problem; in half of these cases, the problem is believed to be potentially preventable. Studies have linked polypharmacy (multiple medications) to unnecessary death. Older patients, who have greater difficulty metabolizing medicines, are more likely to suffer dizziness, confusion and falls. And the side effects of drugs are frequently misinterpreted as a new problem, triggering more prescriptions, a process known as a prescribing cascade.
The glide path to overuse can be gradual: A patient taking a drug to lower blood pressure develops swollen ankles, so a doctor prescribes a diuretic. The diuretic causes a potassium deficiency, resulting in a medicine to treat low potassium. But that triggers nausea, which is treated with another drug, which causes confusion, which in turn is treated with more medication.
For many patients, problems arise when they are discharged from the hospitalon a host of new medications, layered on top of old ones.” (Emphasis added)
Some doctors are now trying to combat the problem through education about“deprescribing” — systematically discontinuing medicines that are inappropriate, duplicative or unnecessary.
I saw this problem recently in my own family when one of my older but still vigorous relatives in remission from cancer suddenly started to deteriorate. At first, her daughter thought the cancer had come back but the tests were negative.
The mystery was solved when it was discovered that my relative’s ophthalmologist (eye doctor) changed her eye drops for glaucoma but, unfortunately, the new medication also contained some of the same drug she was using for her heart condition. When the medications were adjusted, my relative was back to normal within a short time.
My Recommendations For Medication Use At Any Age
- Keep an updated list of all medications you take-including supplements like vitamins and over the counter medications-with you or a family member. Make sure all of your doctors have this list.
- Especially if you take several prescription medications, don’t be afraid to ask your doctor if you still need all your current medications. With pain medication, especially narcotics, ask about how long you should use them and if or when you should start using over the counter pain medicine instead.
- Ask about all your medications’ intended purpose and side effects so you can recognize a potential problem.
- If possible, use one pharmacy so that all your medications will be listed in one place and possible interactions can potentially be picked up.
- Feel free to ask the pharmacist questions about your medications, even after you have already filled and started the prescription. They are there to help and medication is their specialty. You can even ask them how to safely dispose of older or narcotic medications you no longer need. Personally, I use a pharmacy that is open 24 hours a day.
I hope these tips will be helpful to you and your loved ones!