The public health epidemic no one is talking about…

June 4th, 2019

The opioid crisis has led to millions of hospitalizations, more than 100,000 deaths, and caused great harm in communities all across America over the last decade. In response, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed new guidelines for opioid prescribing and launched an awareness campaign to broadcast the potential harms of prescription opioid use. Other government agencies, patient advocates, and health care providers have rushed to respond to this official national emergency as well.  

“Just as drug advertisements push consumers to ‘ask their doctor’ about brand-name drugs, public service announcement should urge people to talk to their doctors about getting a prescription checkup.”

These actions are essential for addressing the ongoing widespread harm of opioid overprescribing and abuse. However, while we have rushed to raise awareness about the opioid crisis, are we ignoring another drug problem? In The Medical Care Blog, a regular publication sponsored by the medical care section of the American Public Health Association, Shannon Brownlee and Judith Garber discuss why public health experts should be paying attention to harm caused by multiple medication use in older Americans.

Currently, more than 40 percent of Americans age 65 and up take five or more medications regularly, triple the rate found in the mid-1990s. In the past decade, there were at least two million hospitalizations of older Americans for adverse drug events; 35 million more visited a clinic or emergency department for an adverse drug event. And because prescription drug use is growing at the same time the American population is aging, this problem is poised to get even worse in future years. 

Brownlee and Garber write that medication overload requires a coordinated response from public health institutions. “Just as the CDC has taken steps to reduce harm from opioid abuse and overuse of antibiotics, government agencies should raise awareness among clinicians and the public about the risks of taking too many medications, especially for older adults,” they write.

We also need a public health campaign, akin to the CDC’s “Rx Awareness” campaign, that will spark shared decision-making conversations between clinicians and patients about medications.

“Just as drug advertisements push consumers to ‘ask their doctor’ about brand-name drugs, public service announcement should urge people to talk to their doctors about getting a prescription checkup,” write Brownlee and Garber.

Read the full op-ed on The Medical Care Blog!

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