People in Northern Ireland discard an estimated 165 tonnes of unused medications via community pharmacies each year, it has been disclosed.
Previous assessments have indicated that the value of wasted medicines in Northern Ireland amounted to £18 million per year. Additionally, there was an associated cost of £650,000 for the safe disposal of these unused medicines, according to Northern Ireland's Department of Health.
Most of the unused medicines were prescribed for patients rather than bought over the counter.
The latest figures don't include medicines disposed of in household waste or flushed down toilets.
In Northern Ireland everyone is entitled to free prescription medicine. Dr Alan Stout, chair of the British Medical Association's NI general practitioner committee, told Medscape News UK: "When everything is free people don’t maybe appreciate the overall cost to the system. One option might be to put the cost on the packet – not because people are paying for it, but to help them appreciate the cost."
Prescription Costs Have Topped £800 Million a Year
The number of prescriptions given to patients is rising year on year in Northern Ireland. It uses more of almost every type of medicine than in other parts of the UK. The cost of medicines has exceeded £800 million per year, with an average of 21 prescription items per person.
Writing in a blog in June this year, Professor Cathy Harrison, chief pharmaceutical officer for Northern Ireland, said that an "ageing population with more complex needs and deprivation levels" were among the underlying factors.
Dr Stout said: "It is a hard issue to address; we do prescribe more in Northern Ireland because of the huge waiting lists here, so GPs will be trying to help patients manage symptoms while they wait for treatment and as a result, we might have to prescribe various items over a course of time."
The Department of Health said it was trying to reduce the amount of money spent unnecessarily on prescribed medicines across health and social care by working closely with health service staff, including GPs and community pharmacists.
Warning Not to Stockpile
Patients are also being urged not to stockpile medicines and only order the medicines that they actually need. It may mean that some patients having their prescriptions stopped, changed, or the amount reduced. However, this would only happen after an assessment of the patient by a healthcare professional. Medicines will only be de-prescribed if it is decided the medicine is no longer needed, is ineffective, inappropriate, or unsafe for the patient.
According to Professor Harrison, reducing the number of medicines being wasted each year would increase the money available to fund other parts of the health service. "Medicines waste occurs for many reasons but sometimes patients receive or order medicines they don't actually need or use, or use only occasionally," she said.
Nearly a Third of Medicines Were Unopened
"Reducing this level of wastage is therefore something that we can all play our part in tackling. For instance, work has shown that around 30% of the medicines returned to community pharmacies have not even been opened. This means that patients are ordering and receiving medication that they don't need and won’t use," Professor Harrison said.
Dr Stout commented: "We know medicine wastage is a huge issue and the amount being wasted is also probably underestimated. Part of the issue is the quantities that some of the medicine comes in, where we are trying to make it easy for patients we prescribe bigger amounts, so they don’t have to keep coming back asking for repeat prescriptions, which is more workload for GPs.
"There are also serious social stress and mental health issues here, and we know we prescribe very highly for those issues. Again, we might need to try several things to get it right for the patient."