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Polypharmacy: An Introduction

Dr. Carlos Romero

Polypharmacy—generally defined as the use of five or more prescription medications—is on the rise. 44% of men and 57% of women over the age of 65 take five or more prescription/and or nonprescription medications a day. Of this group, 12% take ten or more. The reasons for the increase in polypharmacy are numerous, but the biggest reasons for the rise of polypharmacy are a lack of care coordination, lack of proper communication between healthcare providers and lack of proper medication reconciliation. When primary doctors and specialists do not communicate with each other, patients are at risk of being on duplicate, outdated or dangerous interaction prescription plans. 

Understanding polypharmacy is an important part of taking charge of your health. In this series, we are exploring the causes, the risk factor and the impact it has on the health of the individual and the community to be on a multitude of medications. In this article, we are providing an introduction into polypharmacy and explaining some of the common terms used when discussing this subject. 

What is Polypharmacy?

One of the reasons for an increase in polypharmacy is a rise in the aging population. Older populations tend to take more medications than other age groups because they are most likely to have multiple chronic conditions (MCC). MCC is the existence of two or more chronic conditions. 60% of older adults suffer from MCC, which means they are likely to be prescribed multiple medications for these different MCCs. 

Taking multiple medications can be a burden on patients in a number of ways. Prescriptions can be expensive, and the more a patient is prescribed, the more they have to pay. Another reason multiple medications can be a burden is because it can be difficult to keep track of when to take the medication and how often they should take it. The more prescriptions a person takes, the more likely they are not practicing medication adherence, which means taking medications exactly as they are prescribed. Lack of medication adherence can have negative consequences. If a patient is not practicing medication adherence and a condition does not improve or is not managed, they may believe that the prescription is not working when the problem is it is not being taken as prescribed. 

While not practicing medication adherence can lead to problems, another issue in polypharmacy is side effects of medications. Certain medications may have serious negative side effects when taken together. The patients who are most at-risk for experiencing negative side effects of medication interaction are patients who do not have coordinated care. A patient may be prescribed medication for high blood pressure by their cardiologist and a prescription for kidney disease by their nephrologists that are not meant to be taken together. If the doctors are not in communication with each other and the patient does not tell their doctors about all the medication they are on, they can suffer serious health consequences by taking medication that is supposed to make them better. 

Polypharmacy is on the rise, which can lead to negative side effects and problems with medication adherence

It is important for a patient to tell their healthcare providers all medications they are taking, both prescribed and over-the-counter. One way that primary care providers are working to help their patients is by implementing Clinical Pharmacists. A Clinical Pharmacist can help patients identify problems with their current medication regimen to help them improve their health. 

A healthcare company like Reliance Medical Centers has been focused on creating solutions for patients since its inception in 2017. By assigning every patient a coordinated 8-person Care Focus Team and no-cost consultations with an in-house Clinical Pharmacist, patients are encouraged to ask questions, seek solutions and manage their health in a safe, mindful and effective way. 

In the next article, we will look at the role Clinical Pharmacists play in polypharmacy.


American Family Physicians


National Institute on Aging

National Library of Medicine

U.S. Pharmacist

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