Ann Arbor, MI—For a variety of reasons, pharmacists have incomplete information about other medications being used by older Americans when they seek to fill a prescription. The danger, according to a new survey, is adverse drug interactions.

And it’s not just prescription medicines that fail to mix well. Researchers from the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation warn that other substances, such as OTC products, supplements, and food and alcohol, could also present issues.

Those results are based on the National Poll on Healthy Aging, which found that only about a third of older Americans who take at least one prescription drug have consulted with their pharmacist or anyone else about possible drug interactions over the last 2 years.

The survey, sponsored by AARP and Michigan Medicine, found that this was even the case among patients receiving polypharmacy: Among seniors taking six or more different medicines, only 44% reported that they had inquired about possible drug interactions.

The poll used a nationally representative sample of 1,690 Americans between the ages of 50 and 80 years. Coming as no surprise to pharmacists, study authors said that they found the problem was exacerbated by how older Americans now get healthcare and fill prescriptions. About 20% of respondents reporting using more than one pharmacy—whether mail order or another brick-and-mortar pharmacy—in the past 2 years. At the same time, three out of five said that they see multiple physicians for their care.

Most of the poll participants—63%—said that they depended on their doctors and their pharmacists for red-flagging drug interactions. They gave pharmacists something of a pass, however, with only 36% reporting that their pharmacist was aware of all their other medications when filling a prescription.

“Interactions between drugs, and other substances, can put older people at a real risk of everything from low blood sugar to kidney damage and accidents caused by sleepiness,” explained poll director Preeti Malani, MD, Professor of Internal Medicine at the U-M Medical School.

“At the very least, a drug interaction could keep their medicine from absorbing properly,” Malani added. “It’s important for anyone who takes medications to talk with a healthcare professional about these possibilities.”

Interestingly, 90% of poll respondents said that they felt confident that they knew how to avoid drug interactions, although only 21% said they were very confident.

Malani was skeptical, pointing out that even medical professionals have difficulty catching all possible interactions, because of the wide range of prescription and OTC drugs on the market, and the proliferation of supplements.

While computerized trackers can help, the poll’s sponsors said verbal communication might be most effective.

“Even with trackers and systems in place, patients need to be open with their providers and tell them all the medications and supplements they’re taking, including herbal remedies,” emphasized Alison Bryant, PhD, Senior Vice President of research for AARP. 

“It’s especially important for older adults to be vigilant about this because they tend to take multiple medications.”

Malani also urged pharmacists and other healthcare providers to ask more questions about which medications and supplements patients are taking.
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