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Knowledge Base » Care » Strategies for Managing Polypharmacy in Older Adults

Strategies for Managing Polypharmacy in Older Adults

Polypharmacy, the concurrent use of multiple medications by an individual, is a significant concern in healthcare, particularly among older adults. As the population ages and medical advancements extend life expectancy, the prevalence of chronic conditions requiring pharmacological management is surging. Consequently, older adults and their carers often find themselves managing multiple medications simultaneously, leading to the phenomenon of polypharmacy.

The ageing process is commonly accompanied by an increased susceptibility to chronic diseases. These include hypertension, diabetes, arthritis and cardiovascular conditions. To address these health challenges, healthcare providers prescribe a variety of medications to manage symptoms, prevent complications and improve overall quality of life. However, while each medication may serve a specific therapeutic purpose, the cumulative effects of multiple drugs can result in unintended consequences, including adverse drug reactions, drug interactions, medication non-adherence and increased healthcare costs.

The prevalence of polypharmacy among older adults is striking. According to the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), one-quarter of the UK population has a long-term condition. For over 60s, one-quarter have two or more. Worryingly, between 30% and 50% of medicines prescribed for these conditions are not taken as intended.

This figure is expected to rise as the population continues to age and the burden of chronic diseases grows. Polypharmacy not only poses clinical challenges but also has profound implications for patient safety, functional status and overall well-being.

In light of these concerns, there is a pressing need for healthcare professionals to adopt effective strategies for managing polypharmacy in older adults. By optimising medication regimens, promoting medication safety and focusing on patient-centred care, healthcare providers can mitigate the risks associated with polypharmacy and improve health outcomes for older adults. This article will explore various strategies, highlighting the importance of comprehensive medication management and interdisciplinary collaboration in optimising therapeutic outcomes while minimising harm.

Managing polypharmacy in older adults

Understanding the Risks and Challenges

Taking multiple medications poses several risks and challenges for older adults. Among the most significant are adverse drug reactions (ADRs) and medication interactions.

Adverse drug reactions (ADRs)

Adverse drug reactions refer to harmful or unintended responses to medications, which can range from mild discomfort to severe complications requiring medical intervention. Older adults are particularly vulnerable to ADRs due to age-related changes in drug metabolism, decreased organ function and increased sensitivity to medications. Moreover, the cumulative effects of multiple drugs can exacerbate the risk of ADRs, as each medication introduces additional variables that may interact unpredictably with the body’s physiological processes.

Here is an example of a potential adverse drug reaction scenario:

An older adult is prescribed a combination of medications for hypertension, diabetes and osteoarthritis. They experience dizziness and falls due to the cumulative effects of antihypertensive drugs, hypoglycaemic agents and analgesics. This leads to fractures and hospitalisation.

Medication interactions

Medication interactions occur when two or more drugs interact with each other, altering their effectiveness or producing unintended side effects. These interactions can be:

  • Pharmacokinetic – affecting the absorption, distribution, metabolism or excretion of drugs
  • Pharmacodynamic – impacting the physiological effects of medications.

Older adults are at heightened risk of medication interactions due to the complexity of their medication regimens and the presence of comorbidities that necessitate multiple drug therapies.

An example of a potential medication interaction is the concurrent use of warfarin for atrial fibrillation and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for arthritis. This combination increases the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding due to the pharmacodynamic interaction between warfarin and NSAIDs. It can lead to hospitalisation and the need for blood transfusions.

The consequences of ADRs and medication interactions can be severe. They can result in hospitalisations, functional decline, cognitive impairment, falls and even mortality. Furthermore, identifying and managing these risks can be challenging for healthcare providers. This is because older adults may present with non-specific symptoms or atypical clinical presentations of adverse events.

In addition to ADRs and medication interactions, other challenges associated with polypharmacy include:

  • Medication non-adherence
  • Increased healthcare costs
  • Fragmented care
  • Reduced quality of life.

Medication non-adherence

Older adults may struggle to adhere to complex medication regimens, leading to suboptimal treatment outcomes and disease progression. Moreover, the logistical challenges of managing numerous prescriptions can contribute to medication non-adherence and healthcare disparities among older adults.

For example, an older adult prescribed multiple medications for heart failure, diabetes and depression might struggle to adhere to the complex medication regimen due to forgetfulness, or cognitive impairment. This can result in disease exacerbation and increased hospitalisations.

Overall, understanding the risks and challenges associated with polypharmacy is essential. It allows healthcare providers to optimise medication management, minimise harm and improve outcomes for older adults. By identifying and addressing these issues proactively, healthcare teams can enhance patient safety, promote medication optimisation and facilitate patient-centred care for older adults with complex medication needs.

Strategies for Medication Review and Rationalisation

Two critical components of managing polypharmacy are medication reviews and rationalisation. These aim to optimise medication regimens, minimise risks and improve patient outcomes.

Comprehensive medication reviews

Medication reviews need to be comprehensive and regular. They should involve a thorough review of all medications. This includes prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, vitamins and supplements.

During the review, the reviewer should document the indication, dosage, frequency and duration of each medication. They should also note any relevant medical history, allergies and adverse drug reactions.

Finally, the review should be used to identify potential drug-related problems. This includes duplications, interactions, inappropriate dosages and medication non-adherence.

Interdisciplinary collaboration

To deal with the potential problems with polypharmacy, a multidisciplinary team is needed. This should include collaboration from doctors, pharmacists, nurses and any other health professionals involved in patient care. 

It’s important for all involved to communicate and collaborate so they can use their expertise to identify medication-related issues, develop tailored interventions and monitor patient responses.

Patient-centred approach

When dealing with polypharmacy, it can be easy to forget that there is a patient at the centre of all of the discussions. The patient and their caregivers, where relevant, should be involved in the review process. Their input should be solicited regarding their medication preferences, goals of care and treatment priorities. 

What’s more, patients and their caregivers should be provided with information about their medications. This should include their purpose, potential side effects and how to take them. This is important for medication adherence and shared decision-making.

Evidence-based practice

Medication review efforts need to follow evidence-based guidelines. Reviewers should also use clinical decision support tools and best practices to guide rationalisation efforts. They should consider the latest evidence regarding medication efficacy, safety and appropriateness for older adults, balancing the benefits and risks of treatment options in individualised care plans.

Deprescribing initiatives

It’s important to evaluate each medication’s continued need and appropriateness. This should be based on the patient’s clinical status, treatment goals, life expectancy and preferences.

Reviewers should prioritise deprescribing interventions for medications with limited benefit, potential for harm or low therapeutic value. These can then be tapered or discontinued gradually under medical supervision.

Medication optimisation strategies

Another strategy to consider is the exploration of alternative treatment options. Non-pharmacological interventions, lifestyle modifications and therapeutic substitutions should be considered to address underlying health conditions while minimising medication burden.

What’s more, medication regimens should be consolidated as far as possible by consolidating doses, reducing pill burden and using combination therapies or long-acting formulations whenever feasible.

By implementing these strategies for medication review and rationalisation, healthcare professionals can address the complexities of polypharmacy in older adults. Moreover, this will optimise medication management and promote patient-centred care. Collaboration among interdisciplinary teams, engagement of older adults and caregivers and adherence to evidence-based practice guidelines are essential to achieving safe, effective and personalised medication therapy for this vulnerable population.

Strategies for managing polypharmacy

Promoting Medication Adherence

Medication adherence, the extent to which patients take their medications as prescribed, is crucial for achieving optimal therapeutic outcomes. This is especially important in older adults managing multiple medications. 

Here are some strategies that can help promote medication adherence:

Medication organisers

Pill organisers and medication dispensers—including automated ones—help facilitate medication adherence. What’s more, healthcare providers and carers should provide guidance on how to organise medications by day, time of day or specific dosing instructions. This will help minimise confusion and errors.

It’s also a good idea to have medication organisers clearly visible and easily accessible. This will serve as a daily reminder to take medications as prescribed.

Customised medication administration schedules

When prescribing medication, it’s a good idea to tailor medication schedules so that they align with the patient’s daily routine. To further enhance adherence, it’s important to consider patient preferences and lifestyle. This makes them more likely to take their medication as prescribed.

When creating medication schedules, consulting and collaborating with patients and caregivers is vital. This means that mealtimes, activities and sleep patterns can be accommodated. As such, patients are more likely to be consistent and adhere to their prescribed dosing intervals.

Medication reminder systems

A further solution to help older people is to use medication reminders. This could be a simple alarm or, where possible, smartphone or electronic devices that prompt patients to take their medications at the designated times. 

As well as providing and setting up reminders, it’s also important to educate patients on how to set these up and customise them based on their needs and preferences. For example, they may need visual reminders or tactile clues. 

Patient education and counselling

Patients and their families or caregivers need comprehensive medication education. There should be information about why the medication is being prescribed as well as what they can expect from taking it. 

When educating patients on the use of medication, it’s important to use teach-back techniques and plain language to ensure understanding and retention of medication instructions, dosing schedules and precautions.

These discussions should also address any misconceptions or concerns regarding medications. The benefits of adherence for managing chronic conditions and preventing complications should be emphasised.

Regular medication reviews

As mentioned, medication reviews are important—and they must be regular. These reviews present an ideal opportunity to identify barriers or challenges to medication-taking behaviour. These reviews also mean medication regimes can be regularly optimised and healthcare providers can continue to evaluate the appropriateness, efficacy and safety of medications.

Of course, patients should be a part of all shared decision-making regarding their treatment plans. This empowers them to actively participate in medication management and adherence strategies.

The Role of Healthcare Providers and Pharmacists

Healthcare providers and pharmacists play indispensable roles in addressing the complexities of polypharmacy and optimising medication management for older adults. Their expertise, collaboration and patient-centred approach are essential for ensuring safe, effective and personalised care. 

Healthcare providers, including doctors and nurse practitioners, should conduct comprehensive medication reviews to assess the appropriateness, efficacy and safety of patients’ medication regimens.

Equally, pharmacists should collaborate with healthcare teams to optimise medication therapy, identify potential drug-related problems and implement evidence-based interventions to minimise risks and improve outcomes.

Together, healthcare providers and pharmacists should engage in interdisciplinary collaboration to coordinate care, share information and integrate medication management strategies into holistic treatment plans. They must leverage their respective expertise and perspectives to identify medication-related issues, reconcile discrepancies and develop tailored interventions that address the unique needs of older adults with complex medication regimens.

Medication reconciliation processes ensure accurate and up-to-date medication lists and are useful for reconciling discrepancies between different sources of medication information. They also identify opportunities for deprescribing or therapeutic optimisation.

Healthcare providers and pharmacists play a vital role in educating patients and caregivers about their medications. They inform them about purpose, dosage, administration instructions, potential side effects and adherence strategies.

Healthcare providers and pharmacists are also the first port of call for managing and monitoring patients’ responses to medication. They can assess for adverse drug reactions and intervene promptly. This helps mitigate risks and optimise outcomes.

Lifestyle and Alternative Approaches

In addition to pharmacological interventions, lifestyle modifications and alternative therapies play a crucial role in promoting health and well-being, particularly for older adults managing multiple medications. These approaches include exercise, nutrition and complementary therapies, which can complement conventional medical treatments and enhance overall quality of life.

Exercise and physical activity

Regular exercise and physical activity are integral components of a healthy lifestyle for older adults. Keeping active offers numerous benefits for physical, mental and emotional well-being. Engaging in aerobic activities, strength training, flexibility exercises and balance training can improve cardiovascular health, muscle strength, joint function and mobility. This reduces the risk of falls and functional decline.

Healthcare providers can encourage older adults to adopt a personalised exercise regimen tailored to their abilities, preferences and medical conditions. They should be encouraged to be consistent but also progress gradually.

Nutrition and diet

A balanced and nutritious diet is essential for maintaining optimal health and supporting medication efficacy in older adults. Older adults should consume a variety of nutrient-rich foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats, while minimising their intake of processed foods, sugary beverages and excessive sodium.

Where necessary, patients should receive guidance on meal planning, portion control and dietary modifications to manage chronic conditions like hypertension, diabetes and dyslipidaemia. This will optimise medication outcomes and promote overall wellness.

Mind-body practices

Mind-body practices such as yoga, tai chi, meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction offer holistic approaches to managing stress, anxiety and depression while promoting relaxation, mental clarity and emotional resilience.

These practices can complement pharmacological treatments for mental health conditions, enhancing coping strategies, self-awareness and emotional well-being in older adults.

Healthcare providers can recommend classes, workshops, or online resources to support older adults in incorporating mind-body practices into their daily routines, fostering a sense of balance and well-being. It may be difficult to get older people to try out some of these activities if they’ve never done them before, which is a further challenge.

Complementary and integrative therapies

Complementary therapies, including acupuncture, massage therapy, chiropractic care and herbal supplements, are increasingly recognised for their potential benefits in managing chronic pain, musculoskeletal disorders and other health conditions. Integrative approaches that combine conventional medical treatments with complementary therapies can offer a holistic approach to health and wellness, addressing the physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of healing.

Healthcare providers could collaborate with patients to explore complementary therapies that are safe, evidence-based and compatible with their medical treatments. This will ensure informed decision-making and coordinated care.

By integrating lifestyle modifications and alternative approaches into polypharmacy management, healthcare providers can empower older adults to take an active role in their health and well-being, reduce reliance on medications and enhance overall quality of life.

polypharmacy strategies

Empowering Healthier Medication Regimens

In conclusion, the management of polypharmacy in older adults requires a multi-layered approach. This goes beyond pharmacological interventions to encompass lifestyle modifications, patient education and collaborative decision-making. As we navigate the complexities of medication management for older people, it is essential to empower them (and their caregivers) to actively participate in creating healthier medication regimens tailored to their needs and preferences.

Empowerment begins with education. Older adults and caregivers should be equipped with comprehensive information about medications, including their purpose, potential side effects and proper administration techniques. By understanding the rationale behind each medication and its role in managing their health conditions, older adults can make informed decisions about their treatment options and actively engage in shared decision-making with healthcare providers.

Furthermore, older adults should be encouraged to voice their concerns, preferences and treatment goals during medication reviews and clinical encounters. Open communication fosters trust, collaboration and mutual respect between patients and healthcare providers, empowering older adults to advocate for their health and well-being. Caregivers also play a crucial role in supporting older adults in medication adherence, monitoring and self-management. They provide invaluable assistance and encouragement throughout the treatment process.

Additionally, many older adults can benefit from adopting healthier lifestyle habits, including regular exercise, balanced nutrition, stress management techniques and complementary therapies. These lifestyle modifications not only promote overall health and wellness but also complement pharmacological treatments, reducing the reliance on medications and enhancing therapeutic outcomes.

Ultimately, the goal of empowering older adults and caregivers to actively participate in healthier medication regimens is to promote autonomy, dignity and quality of life.

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About the author

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Louise Woffindin

Louise is a writer and translator from Sheffield. Before turning to writing, she worked as a secondary school language teacher. Outside of work, she is a keen runner and also enjoys reading and walking her dog Chaos.



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