Almost half of all adults take prescription drugs

“Half of women and 43% of men in England are now regularly taking prescription drugs,” BBC News reports. The figures have come to light as part of a new survey into drug prescribing patterns.

According to the survey (The Health Survey for England 2013), commonly prescribed medications included:

There was also media controversy over the number of antidepressants being prescribed – particularly for women on a low income. Nearly one in five women from economically deprived areas were taking antidepressants.

The Health Survey for England 2013 also monitored other trends in the nation’s health, including people’s weight, smoking habits, fruit and vegetable consumption, and shift work. 

Who produced the data?

The report was produced by the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), the official provider of national health and social care statistics. The HSCIC was set up by the government in April 2013. Its role is to provide information on a range of aspects concerning health for use by commissioners, analysts and clinicians in driving patient services.

In the interests of transparency we should point out that the Behind the Headlines team, along with all NHS Choices staff, is employed by the HSCIC.

The HSCIC produces an annual Health Survey for England that monitors important aspects of the population’s health.

How was the data collected?

The data comes from interviews with a representative sample of the population, carried out by the Joint Health Surveys Unit of NatCen Social Research and the Research Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, at the University of London. The interviews consisted of core questions and groups of questions on specific issues. Measurements such as blood pressure and waist circumference, and analysis of blood and saliva samples, were taken by a nurse.

The researchers interviewed 8,795 adults and 2,185 children for the 2013 survey.

What were the key findings?

Below are the key findings from the survey on prescription medication.

  • 43% of men and 50% of women reported that they had taken at least one prescribed medicine in the last week. Almost a quarter of men (22%) and women (24%) reported that they had taken at least three prescribed medicines in the last week. This proportion increased with age, with more than half of participants aged 65-74, and more than 70% of those aged 75 and over, having taken at least three prescribed medicines.
  • On average, 18.7 prescription medicines were dispensed per head of population in 2013.
  • The most frequently reported prescribed classes of medicines were cholesterol-lowering drugs (16% of men and 12% of women), drugs to lower blood pressure (14% and 15% respectively) and for women, painkillers including NSAIDs (12%).
  • Women (11%) were also more likely than men (6%) to be taking antidepressants. Women also demonstrated a significant variation by income class. 7% of women in the highest two quintiles of income were taking antidepressants, which rose to 17% of women in the lowest quintiles.
  • The cost of medicines in 2013, including costs for use in hospitals, was more than £15 billion. More than 1 billion prescription items were dispensed in the community in England, an average of 2.7 million items every day. The Net Ingredient Cost in 2013 was £8.6 billion, an increase of £102 million from the 2012 cost.

What did the media say?

Not surprisingly, the report was widely covered in the media, with many papers focusing on the numbers of people taking prescription drugs. Much of the reporting took a negative tone.

For example, the headline in The Times was “nation hooked on prescription medicine”. This is not particularly useful language as it implies that people are addicted to their medications. Medicines such as statins and ACE inhibitors are not addictive; though people often have to take them on a long-term basis to reduce the risk of serious complications such as heart attacks or strokes.

BBC News and the Daily Mail were relatively more balanced, as they carried comments from Dr Jennifer Mindell, one of the report’s authors. Dr Mindell explained there had been big changes in the use of statins (which lower cholesterol), with millions more people eligible to take them today than a decade ago. This increase in eligibility for these drugs is likely to be the result of new evidence on cost and effectiveness, which has suggested that the benefits in terms of preventing cardiovascular disease may outweigh the risks for many people.

Depression rates were generally higher among women than men because they were more willing to seek medical help, she reportedly said. The link between poverty and depression is also not particularly surprising, and is consistent with other observations from national reports and surveys in recent years that tend to show greater prevalence of both chronic mental and physical health conditions in more deprived areas. How to address this socioeconomic health divide is another matter.

The Mail also quoted Dr Maureen Baker, of the Royal College of General Practitioners, who said: “We have an ageing population and more patients are presenting with complex and multiple conditions including mental health issues and this is reflected in today’s figures.”

NHS Attribution