Nearly 50% take prescription drugs

By James Gallagher
Health editor, BBC News website

Image source, Thinkstock

Half of women and 43% of men in England are now regularly taking prescription drugs, according to the comprehensive Health Survey for England.

Cholesterol-lowering statins, pain relief and anti-depressants were among the most prescribed medicines.

The report, by the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), showed an average of 18.7 prescriptions per person in England in 2013.

The cost to the NHS was in excess of £15bn-a-year.

More than a fifth of men and nearly a quarter of women are taking at least three prescriptions.

Media caption,
Dr Clare Gerada: "I think what we're doing over-treating and over-diagnosing"

All the figures exclude contraceptives and smoking cessation products.

Nearly a third of prescriptions were for cardiovascular disease with more than 65 million prescriptions for tackling high blood pressure, heart failure or cholesterol levels.

Simvastatin - which lowers cholesterol - was the single most prescribed item with 40 million prescriptions.

Image source, EPA


Dr Jennifer Mindell, one of the report's authors at University College London, said: "This is the first nationally-representative study to report on the use of prescribed medicines taken by people in the community, not just those within the healthcare system.

"That half of men over 65 are taking cholesterol-lowering medicines reflects the high risk of cardiovascular disease in this group.

"Stopping smoking, being a healthy weight, eating more vegetables and fruit, and being physically active reduce people's risk of these diseases, for people who want to avoid taking medicines."

Around the UK

Image source, BBC Horizon
Image caption,
One third of patients do not take their medicine as directed, research suggests

There is not an equivalent dataset for the rest of the UK.

This study focuses on the drugs patients say they are taking rather than the number of prescriptions written by a GP as up to half of such prescriptions are either not taken or not taken as recommended.

But figures for community prescribing - which include GPs and dentists, but not hospitals - show:

Analyses of similar data sets for England shows community prescribing, including contraceptives, increased from 650 million in 2003 to more than 1,000 million in 2013.

Mental health

Antidepressants were taken by more than one in 10 women - double the figure for men.

The drugs were most commonly taken by middle-aged women and those from deprived areas - 17% of the poorest women took antidepressants compared with 7% of the richest.

Dr Sarah Jackson, at University College London, commented: "It's well known that rates of depression are much higher among women than men, so I am not surprised to see that antidepressant use follows the same pattern in this study.

"People with depression are less likely to be in regular employment, and people who are unemployed or in low paid jobs are more likely to have depression."

Use of prescribed medicines


of women regularly take prescription drugs


of men regularly take prescription drugs

  • 30% of total prescriptions were for cardiovascular disease

  • 5% of total prescriptions were for antidepressants

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Overweight and obese people were more likely to need prescription drugs.

More than half of severely obese people in England reported taking at least one prescribed medicine and a third took at least three.

Sue Faulding, a pharmacist and programme manager of prescribing and primary care services at the HSCIC, said: "Obesity is often associated with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, joint pain and depression.

"Lifestyle changes are always recommended in the first instance, but medicines can help to address the symptoms and this study shows that medicine use increases steadily with body mass index."

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