Polypharmacy and Mesothelioma: Too Many Prescriptions Can Be Harmful

Prescription pill bottles

Polypharmacy is the use of more drugs than medically necessary. This situation increases the risk of negative health consequences in older people and individuals living with multiple chronic health conditions.

For mesothelioma patients, this can be a serious medical issue. Research shows cancer patients are among the people most likely to experience polypharmacy.

Even if you’ve taken a particular drug for years without problems, adding in mesothelioma treatment may lead to unexpected side effects from your usual medication.

After a cancer diagnosis, you may need to transition off some medications to minimize the risk of polypharmacy. This may be necessary to ensure cancer therapies are as safe and effective as possible.

Understanding your current medication list and working with your doctor to update it frequently are the best ways to protect yourself against polypharmacy.

Harms to Mesothelioma Patients Taking Too Many Medications

Taking medications you don’t need is a bad idea, and polypharmacy can be very dangerous. Some of the documented harms of polypharmacy include:

  • Adverse Drug Events: Patients on multiple medications are significantly more likely to experience emergency room visits and hospitalizations related to drug reactions.

  • Medication Nonadherence: Patients may forget or be unable to take all of their medications. It may be because of confusion about what to take when or inability to pay for multiple prescriptions.

  • Drug Interactions: Patients on multiple medications are more likely to have one or more medications interact with one another to cause serious side effects.

  • Functional Status: Increased prescription medication use is linked with diminished ability to perform activities of daily living such as bathing and meal preparation.

  • Cognitive Impairment: For older individuals, delirium, dementia, decreases in memory and inability to think clearly are associated with taking multiple prescriptions.

  • Falls: For older adults, each additional prescription medication added to their routine increases the risk of falls. Falls lead to sickness, immobility and in the worst case, death.

  • Urinary Incontinence: Polypharmacy is associated with higher risk of developing urinary tract infections and incontinence.

  • Poor Nutrition: Older adults taking multiple medications are more likely to be malnourished and to experience vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

  • Increased Health Care Costs: Taking unnecessary medications not only increases health care costs for “the system” — it can lead to financial distress and even contribute to bankruptcy for some people.

How Does Polypharmacy Occur?

For people with multiple chronic conditions, drugs tend to be prescribed one at a time, over many months and years.

A person may see a different specialist for each health issue. No one physician has a complete picture of all of the medications the patient is taking.

Even though a doctor would never purposefully prescribe extra, unnecessary medications, it is easy to see how the drug list gets longer over time.

This fragmented care, in which a person sees someone different for each health condition, can contribute to the risk of polypharmacy.

Each of these providers prescribes a drug to manage the disease they specialize in. Yet they may not know when the patient’s medical situation has changed.

Role of Electronic Medical Records in Preventing Polypharmacy

Electronic medical records are supposed to prevent this problem. Unfortunately, they don’t always work as intended.

Records may not be transferred accurately between health systems, for example.

Health care providers at different facilities may not be viewing your record in the same format, making it easy to overlook recently added notes or prescriptions.

Or the records pulled up on one office computer may not the most updated version.

Steps Mesothelioma Patients Can Take to Minimize Polypharmacy Risk

Regardless of the reason, it’s safest not to depend solely on your electronic medical record to manage the medications you’re taking.

Mesothelioma patients can take control of their own medication list:

  • Bring an updated, complete list of all medications you are taking to every medical appointment.

  • Use your cell phone to take a picture of every medication bottle. If you have questions about a particular drug, the dose or how to take it, you can show the label to your doctor and get clarification.

  • Compile a list of every over-the-counter medication, dietary supplement, vitamin, mineral and herbal product you’re using. Bring it to every appointment.

  • Use a pillbox or pill-minder app on your phone to track what you’re taking and when. This will help you stay on track with medication management.

  • You may find yourself looking at a medication bottle and thinking, “Why do I take this one again?” Call your doctor or pharmacist right away and request clarification.

As more and more health facilities learn the best ways to create and share medical records with one another, this problem will become less prevalent.

Until that time, be your own advocate to prevent polypharmacy in your medical care.

Oncology Medical Writer

Suzanne Dixon is a registered dietitian, epidemiologist and experienced medical writer. She has volunteered with the National Cancer Policy Forum, Oncology Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, American Institute for Cancer Research, American Society for Clinical Oncology, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The New York Times and Time Magazine also have reviewed her cancer patient resources.

4 Cited Article Sources

  1. Goldberg, J.I. et al. (2018, December 1). Nursing Education: Review of Assessment, Clinical Care, and Implications for Practice Regarding Older Adult Patients With Cancer.
    Retrieved from: https://cjon.ons.org/cjon/22/6/supplement/nursing-education-review-assessment-clinical-care-and-implications-practice
  2. Turner, J.P. et al. (2018, September 12). Strategies to promote public engagement around deprescribing.
    Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6243424/
  3. Maher, Jr., R.L. et al. (2013, September 27). Clinical Consequences of Polypharmacy in Elderly.
    Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3864987/
  4. D’Arrigo, T. (2018, November 27). American Pharmacists Association. Deprescribing is cure for ‘disease’ of polypharmacy. Retrieved from: https://www.pharmacist.com/article/deprescribing-cure-disease-polypharmacy

More on This Topic

Get Your Free Mesothelioma Guide Chat live with a patient advocate now loading spinner