What is Polypharmacy

Discover the impact of polypharmacy on older adults and effective strategies to manage it. Learn what is polypharmacy today!

Understanding Polypharmacy

Polypharmacy refers to the use of five or more medications by a single patient to treat one or more conditions. It is most commonly observed among older adults, ages 65 and over. While the exact number of medications may vary, the cutoff point of five drugs is often associated with the risk of adverse outcomes, such as falls, frailty, disability, and even mortality in older adults.

Definition and Scope

Polypharmacy is defined as the use of multiple medications by a single patient to treat one or more conditions. It can occur in various healthcare settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, and outpatient care. The number of medications involved may vary, but typically, the threshold of five or more drugs is used to identify instances of polypharmacy.

Impact on Older Adults

Polypharmacy has a significant impact on older adults, particularly in terms of adverse drug effects and medication adherence. Older adults who are exposed to polypharmacy are at a higher risk of experiencing adverse drug events, including preventable events, and an increased likelihood of drug-drug interactions. The use of multiple medications can lead to treatment failure or hospitalizations, particularly if associated with visual or cognitive decline [1].

Furthermore, the risk of falls increases with the number of medications taken. Older adults who are prescribed four or more medications are at the greatest risk of falling. Falls can result in significant injuries, leading to decreased mobility and quality of life.

Polypharmacy in older adults can also lead to medication adherence issues. With multiple medications to manage, individuals may find it challenging to adhere to complex medication regimens. This is especially true if they experience visual or cognitive decline, which can further exacerbate adherence problems. Failing to take medications as prescribed can result in treatment failure and additional healthcare complications.

Recognizing the definition and scope of polypharmacy, as well as understanding its impact on older adults, is crucial for healthcare professionals and individuals alike. By addressing the risks associated with polypharmacy, healthcare providers can work towards optimizing medication use and improving patient outcomes.

Risks of Polypharmacy

Polypharmacy, the use of multiple medications by an individual, can pose various risks and challenges. It is important to understand these risks to ensure the safe and effective use of medications. Two significant risks associated with polypharmacy are adverse outcomes and medication adherence issues.

Adverse Outcomes

Polypharmacy in older adults is associated with adverse drug effects, including preventable adverse drug events and an increased risk of drug-drug interactions. When multiple medications are taken concurrently, there is a higher likelihood of experiencing adverse reactions, as certain medications may interact negatively with each other. This can lead to side effects that may range from mild discomfort to severe health complications.

Patients taking more than four medications have an increased risk of injurious falls, and the risk of falls increases significantly with each additional medication, regardless of medication type. In addition to falls, other adverse outcomes associated with polypharmacy include cognitive impairment, hospitalizations, and treatment failure.

Medication Adherence Issues

Polypharmacy can lead to problems with medication adherence in older adults, particularly if associated with visual or cognitive decline. Keeping track of multiple medications and their respective dosing schedules can be challenging, especially for individuals with cognitive impairments. This can result in non-adherence, where medications are not taken as prescribed, leading to treatment failure or hospitalizations.

The potential for not taking medications as directed increases with the number of medications prescribed. The complexity of medication regimens can overwhelm patients, making it difficult for them to adhere to the prescribed treatment plans. Non-adherence can have serious consequences, including ineffective treatment of underlying medical conditions and worsening health outcomes.

To mitigate the risks associated with polypharmacy, healthcare providers and patients should work collaboratively to optimize medication regimens, promote medication adherence, and regularly review the necessity of each medication. By addressing these risks, individuals can better manage their medications and reduce the potential for adverse outcomes and medication adherence issues.

Factors Contributing to Polypharmacy

Polypharmacy, the regular use of at least five medications, is influenced by various factors. Two significant contributors to polypharmacy are the aging population and prescribing cascades.

Aging Population

The aging population is particularly vulnerable to polypharmacy. Older adults often have multiple medical conditions managed by multiple subspecialist physicians, which can result in the use of multiple medications. In addition, older adults may have chronic mental health conditions or reside in long-term care facilities, further increasing their risk of polypharmacy. In fact, up to 91% of patients in long-term care facilities take at least five medications daily.

The aging process can also lead to changes in the body's metabolism and drug clearance, making older adults more susceptible to adverse drug effects. Vision and cognitive impairments associated with aging can further impact medication adherence, potentially resulting in treatment failure or hospitalizations.

Prescribing Cascades

Prescribing cascades occur when additional medications are prescribed to treat adverse effects caused by other drugs. This can lead to confusion, falls, decreased cognitive functions, and increased polypharmacy. For example, if a medication causes dizziness, another medication may be prescribed to address the dizziness, inadvertently perpetuating the cycle of polypharmacy.

Prescribing cascades can also occur due to a lack of pharmacological knowledge, where new medications are prescribed to address symptoms that are actually caused by existing medications. Over-the-counter medications and herbal remedies can further contribute to these cascades, as they may interact with prescribed medications, leading to adverse events.

Recognizing and addressing these factors is essential in managing and reducing polypharmacy. Healthcare providers should take a comprehensive approach, considering the individual's medical history, current needs, and goals of care. By understanding the specific factors contributing to polypharmacy, healthcare professionals can work towards optimizing medication regimens and improving patient outcomes.

Managing Polypharmacy

Effectively managing polypharmacy requires interventions from physicians and open communication among healthcare professionals. By simplifying medication regimens and promoting clear communication, the risks associated with polypharmacy can be minimized.

Physician Interventions

Physicians play a crucial role in managing polypharmacy. They should be aware of all medications the patient is taking and the potential side effects associated with each medication. To address polypharmacy, physicians often intervene by simplifying medication regimens and reducing the number of medications a patient needs to take. This approach helps to minimize the potential harm caused by multiple medications, especially in older adults.

To ensure patient safety, physicians should regularly evaluate medication regimens and consider deprescribing when appropriate. Deprescribing is the systematic process of identifying and discontinuing medications where potential harm outweighs the benefit or when there is unclear benefit. It involves collaboration with a multidisciplinary team and aligning medication use with the patient's current needs and goals of care. Physicians should view deprescribing as a therapeutic intervention, similar to initiating clinically appropriate therapy. It is essential to consider the patient's perspectives, therapy goals, and preferences when making deprescribing decisions.

Importance of Communication

Open communication between healthcare professionals, including physicians, pharmacists, and nurses, is crucial in managing polypharmacy. Encouraging patients to maintain a detailed medication history that includes all medications, treatment schedules, and indications can significantly aid in communication. By having accurate and up-to-date information, healthcare professionals can make informed decisions and identify potential issues related to polypharmacy.

Physicians should collaborate with other healthcare team members to ensure that medication regimens are optimized and tailored to the patient's specific needs. Regular communication and sharing of information among the care team contribute to a comprehensive approach to managing polypharmacy.

During patient visits, physicians should take the opportunity to discuss medication-related concerns, potential interactions, and adherence issues. By fostering open dialogue, patients can express their concerns or difficulties with their medications, allowing healthcare professionals to address any issues and make necessary adjustments to the treatment plan.

In summary, managing polypharmacy involves physician interventions and effective communication among healthcare professionals. Physicians play a crucial role in simplifying medication regimens and considering deprescribing when appropriate. Open communication facilitates collaboration among the healthcare team and ensures that medication regimens are optimized based on the patient's needs and goals. By working together, healthcare professionals can help mitigate the risks associated with polypharmacy and enhance patient care.

Strategies to Reduce Polypharmacy

To address the risks and challenges associated with polypharmacy, healthcare providers employ various strategies to reduce the burden of multiple medications on patients. Two key approaches are deprescribing and a multidisciplinary approach.


Deprescribing is a systematic process that involves identifying and discontinuing medications when the potential harms outweigh the benefits for an individual patient's care goals, current level of functioning, life expectancy, values, and preferences. It aims to optimize clinical outcomes by discontinuing medications, decreasing dosages, or changing medications. Physicians view deprescribing as a therapeutic intervention similar to initiating appropriate therapy, considering patient and caregiver perspectives on therapy goals and preferences [4].

The deprescribing process requires careful evaluation of each medication's necessity and potential risks. Physicians should constantly assess the ongoing need for each medication and consider alternative treatment options or lifestyle modifications. It is crucial to involve patients in the decision-making process, empowering them to actively participate in their care and express their preferences. Open and clear communication between healthcare providers and patients is essential throughout the deprescribing process to ensure understanding and cooperation.

Multidisciplinary Approach

Managing polypharmacy effectively often requires a collaborative effort involving a multidisciplinary healthcare team. This team typically includes physicians, pharmacists, nurses, and other healthcare professionals who work together to optimize medication use and reduce the risk of adverse outcomes.

The multidisciplinary approach involves regular communication and coordination among team members, allowing for a comprehensive evaluation of the patient's medication regimen. Each team member brings their expertise to the table, contributing valuable insights and perspectives. This collaborative approach helps identify potential drug interactions, duplication of therapy, inappropriate prescribing, and opportunities for simplification or adjustment of medication regimens.

By leveraging the knowledge and skills of various healthcare professionals, the multidisciplinary approach aims to improve medication management, enhance patient safety, and optimize therapeutic outcomes. It helps ensure that patients receive the most appropriate and effective treatment while minimizing the risks associated with polypharmacy.

Reducing polypharmacy requires a tailored and individualized approach, considering the unique needs and circumstances of each patient. By employing strategies like deprescribing and adopting a multidisciplinary approach, healthcare providers can actively address polypharmacy concerns and improve the overall quality of medication use for patients.

Recognizing and Addressing Polypharmacy

Polypharmacy, defined as the use of multiple medications, is a significant concern, particularly for older adults who may have multiple health conditions requiring numerous medications [5]. Recognizing and addressing polypharmacy is crucial to ensure the safety and well-being of patients. This section focuses on two important aspects of addressing polypharmacy: assessment and tools, as well as identifying inappropriate prescriptions.

Assessment and Tools

Regular assessment and the use of appropriate tools are essential in identifying and managing polypharmacy. Healthcare professionals, particularly primary care providers and geriatric specialists, play a vital role in recognizing potential issues related to polypharmacy in older adults. Several factors can help identify those at higher risk, including taking 10 or more medications, experiencing cognitive impairment, or falling frequently.

To assess and address polypharmacy effectively, healthcare providers can utilize various tools and approaches. These tools assist in the evaluation of medication regimens and identifying potential issues. Some commonly used tools include:

  1. Medication reconciliation: A process that involves obtaining a comprehensive and accurate list of medications used by the patient, including prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, and supplements. This helps identify any discrepancies or potential drug interactions.
  2. Beers Criteria: A set of guidelines developed by the American Geriatrics Society that identifies potentially inappropriate medications for older adults. These criteria serve as a valuable resource for healthcare providers in evaluating the appropriateness of medication regimens.
  3. Screening Tools of Older Persons' Prescriptions (STOPP) and Screening Tool to Alert to Right Treatment (START): These tools are designed to identify potentially inappropriate medications (STOPP) and potentially missing or underused medications (START) in older adults. They provide guidance for medication review and optimization.

By incorporating these assessment tools into clinical practice, healthcare providers can identify potential issues related to polypharmacy and take appropriate actions to optimize medication management.

Inappropriate Prescriptions

Inappropriate prescriptions are a significant concern in polypharmacy, leading to potential adverse drug reactions and unwanted effects. Identifying and addressing these prescriptions is crucial to minimize the risks associated with polypharmacy.

To address inappropriate prescriptions, healthcare providers should consider the following strategies:

  1. Deprescribing: The process of carefully discontinuing medications that are unnecessary, no longer beneficial, or may be causing harm. Deprescribing requires a systematic approach, considering factors such as life expectancy, functional status, and clinical targets that change with age.
  2. Multidisciplinary approach: Collaborating with a multidisciplinary team, including pharmacists, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, can help optimize medication management. The team can provide expertise in medication reviews, drug interactions, and deprescribing strategies, ensuring comprehensive care.

Through these approaches, healthcare providers can work together to recognize and address inappropriate prescriptions, reduce medication burden, and improve the overall care and outcomes for patients affected by polypharmacy.

Recognizing and addressing polypharmacy requires ongoing evaluation, open communication between healthcare providers and patients, and a patient-centered approach. By utilizing assessment tools and addressing inappropriate prescriptions, healthcare professionals can help minimize the risks associated with polypharmacy and optimize medication management for older adults.