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Professor Sir Stephen Powis, national medical director for the NHS in England, raised concerns that the Covid-19 pandemic could have exacerbated the problem.
He said that it was “more important than ever” for the NHS to take action to reduce overprescribing.
Reducing unnecessary prescriptions which can increase the risk of harm and cause unwanted side effects is more important than ever
Professor Sir Stephen Powis
Sir Stephen said that expert pharmacy teams are being deployed across England to reduce the number of medicines patients are taking unnecessarily.
“As a medic, the approach of ‘a pill for every ill’ should never be a starting point for treating patients,” he said.
“With figures suggesting around 10% of prescription items are not needed, and the pandemic undoubtedly having an impact as people have spent long periods of time at home, reducing unnecessary prescriptions which can increase the risk of harm and cause unwanted side effects is more important than ever.
“That is why the NHS is taking action to slash unnecessary prescriptions, rolling out expert pharmacy teams across the country who can give advice to patients so that the NHS can make best use of resources while maximising other treatment options too.
“Importantly, cutting unnecessary prescriptions could also save millions of pounds which could be reinvested into NHS care.
It comes after a Government-commissioned review into the overprescribing of medicines – where people are given medicines they do not need or want, or which may do them harm – concluded that while the NHS has helped stem the growth of overprescribing in England, the problem remains at “unacceptable levels”.
The review, led by chief pharmaceutical officer for England Dr Keith Ridge and published in September last year, estimates that 10% of the total number of prescription items issued by GP surgeries “need not have been issued”.
With 1.1 billion prescription items dispensed in the community in England in 2020/21, this suggests that as many as 110 million could have been “overprescribed”.
The elderly, those with disabilities and people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are “disproportionately affected”, the review found.
Around 15% of people in England are taking five or more medicines a day, with 7% on eight or more.
The review authors warned that overprescribing can affect people taking lots of drugs when different medicines interact negatively with each other.
Indeed some 6.5% of hospital admissions are caused by the adverse effects of medicines, rising to 20% of hospital admissions among people over the age of 65.
The authors also said that repeat prescriptions make up around three-quarters of all prescription items and can be left without review for long periods, increasing the risk of overprescribing.
Meanwhile the NHS in England announced hundreds more international medics and refugees have joined the health service through a new medical support worker role.
Doctors from Ukraine, Afghanistan and Myanmar are among those employed in the NHS with this job title, which means they can work in the health service while getting their qualifications to practise medicine in Britain.
The recently introduced role sees those with medical training from overseas who come to live and work in England being fast-tracked into the health service and supported to become registered NHS doctors, while working under supervision.
Some 470 people were employed last year as medical support workers.