The Problem with Unused Medicines
How much medicine goes unused?
30 percent of the medicines we purchase go unused for
various reasons according to common estimates based on scientific studies using
a variety of methodologies. Examples of relevant survey results include:
- A survey
of 238 California residents found that 2 out of 3 prescription medicines
were reported unused. Common reasons were: disease/condition
improved (40.4 percent), forgetfulness (10.6 percent), and side effects
(8.0 percent). Law et al. “Taking stock of medication wastage: Unused
medications in US household”. 2015. Research in Social and Administrative
Pharmacy 11; 571-578.
- An Los
Angeles County Department of Public Health survey of 1,062 residents found:
a 2009 survey of WA residents found:
half of respondents had six or more medication containers in the home,
and 39 percent of those people had at least one container that had
expired or would not be used for some other reason.
- 25 percent
of respondents said there were unused narcotics or other medications
following a death or major illness of somebody they knew.
- 72 percent
of respondents said that they or a household member would either drop-off
unused or expired medicines at a free, convenient location or use a free
mailer. “Medication Disposal: 2009 Survey of Attitudes and
Preferences Among Oregon and Washington State Residents”. The Gilmore
Research Group. December 2009.
Why are so many medicines unused?
Prescription and over-the-counter medicines go unused for
many reasons. Changes in prescribing and dispensing practices coupled with changes
in consumer demand could reduce some wasted prescriptions. However, even when the
health care system and patients do everything right, some medicines are
leftover and need secure disposal. Reasons for leftover medicines
of medicines are needed during a serious illness, but when the individual
recovers there are leftovers.
of medicines, including strong pain relievers, are needed for end-of-life
care and are leftover for family members to deal with when the patient
is not finished if the patient has an allergic reaction, can’t tolerate
the drug, or other side effects develop.
medications are prescribed in the search for the right treatment. This is
particularly common in treatment for depression and other common
expire before they are fully used. This is common with prescription
drugs that patients take only “as needed” for a recurring condition, and
with over-the-counter medicines that consumers purchase to have on hand if
are overprescribed in some situations. There is increasing awareness
in the medical community about the problem of overprescribing, especially
for pain pills. WA has adopted strong opioid prescribing and pain management guidelines.
This is a complex issue. Responsible practitioners must balance limiting
the size of a prescription with a patient’s legitimate need for
appropriate pain management or other treatment.
buy more over-the-counter medicines than they will need. This is
encouraged by advertising that prompts consumers to “stock up” their
people stop taking their prescription medicines before they should,
sometimes because they feel better. While physicians stress the importance
of medication adherence to patients, this is an ongoing area of emphasis
to ensure patients complete drug treatments.
Survey responses from 2,041 Maine residents who returned
unwanted medicines in a pilot mail-back program found the following reasons why
medicines were returned:
- 47.4 percent
- 31.1 percent
doctor said to stop taking it
- 27.3 percent
doctor ordered a new medicine
- 24.2 percent
- 18.0 percent
- 12.2 percent
- 11.9 percent
negative reaction or allergy
- 7.2 percent
didn’t want to take it
Respondents could select multiple reasons.
Source: Kaye, Crittenden, Gressitt, Sorg, LaBrie and Chase.
Safe Medicine Disposal for ME: A Handbook and Summary Report April 2010. Page
47. Available online from this site: http://umaine.edu/safemeddisposal/resource-library/