NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

$1 Billion in Medications for the Elderly May Be Wasted

October 18, 2001

Unused pills may account for more than $1 billion in drug costs among elderly Americans each year, according to a study in the Journal of Family Practice.

Thomas M. Morgan of the Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn., and associates interviewed 73 retirement-community residents aged 65 and older with full prescription-drug coverage. They also visited the participants' homes to take prescription-pill counts.

The investigators found wasted pills accounted for a little more than 2.3 percent of the residents' total yearly medication costs. Although the average individual cost of $30.47 was "modest," this per-person price tag adds up. Extrapolated to the whole U.S. elderly population, it suggests discarded or unused pills tops cost $1 billion annually.

The main causes of waste included:

  • Resolution of the condition for which the medication was prescribed (37.4 percent).
  • Patient-perceived ineffectiveness (22.6 percent).
  • Prescription change by the physician (15.8 percent).
  • Patient-perceived adverse effects (14.4 percent).

Antibiotics, high blood pressure medication and benzodiazepines -- a drug class that includes treatments for anxiety and insomnia -- were the most frequently wasted drugs. Drugs for acute conditions, rather than chronic illnesses, appeared to account for most of the unused medication, according to Morgan.

Source: Thomas M. Morgan, "The Economic Impact of Wasted Prescription Medication in an Outpatient Population of Older Adults," Journal of Family Practice, September 2001; "Wasted Medications May Cost More Than $1 Billion a Year," Reuters Health, October 11, 2001.


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