Euro-Sante :: Euro-Health

In these days of trying to better understand the determinants of rising healthcare expenditure, it is productive to look in the waste bin, to see what is being thrown away. Let’s look in the waste bin and see what medicines we find.

Medicines waste is medicines given to patients that they do not take. But this needs to distinguish between actions taken by the patient, and other factors since not all wastage is patient non-adherence.

The costs include the cost of the medicine itself, but also the changed procedures in pharmacies to reduce patient-related waste (procedural costs drive duplicate medicines ordering on hospital wards, for instance). There is also the costs associated with safe disposal of the medicine waste itself and how patients dispose of unwanted/unused medicines. Environmental contamination by pharmaceuticals is of rising concern. [Pharmaceuticals in the Environment, European Environment Agency, 2010].

Considerable medicines waste arises because the patient has died and correlates with condition: 100% return for anaesthetic drugs, 60% for drugs used in immunosuppression/malignant disease, 26% for cardiovascular conditions, 19% for drugs used for infections. This suggests that gross wastage data needs to be viewed with some care.

Reducing the stock held by patients in the home shifts the stocking costs to pharmacies. UK evidence suggests that “if all repeat prescriptions in 2008 had been issued at just 28 days, then total pharmacy costs would have been even higher – around £2.3 billion, or 28% of the net cost of medicines dispensed.” [Gilmour review on prescription charges, “Medicines Wastage” Prescription charges review: implementing exemption from prescription charges for people with long term conditions, May 2010] This suggests that included in wastage costs are pharmacy dispensing charges.

As in all cases of healthcare expenditure, the challenge involves a complex mix of activities and stakeholders. We need much better tracking of waste, if only to ensure we do not inappropriately target expenditure of medicines without first ensuring that medicines that are being bought are properly used. Industry, healthcare and regulators can usefully work together here.

I haven’t mentioned the environmental impact of flushing unused medicines down the toilet. I’ll let your imagination go to work on that one.

Want to know more?

Evaluation of the Scale, Causes and Costs of Waste Medicines, Final Report, York Health Economics Consortium/School of Pharmacy, London, 2010. This has a good international literature review of costs, but caution is needed in the context of the comments below.

Kummerer K, Hempel M (eds) Green and Sustainable Pharmacy, Springer 2010. See page 170 in for a table of waste by country, but not costed.

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