Prescription Drugs in America – Crisis or Saving Grace?

According to the Mayo Clinic and Olmstead Medical Center, seven in 10 Americans are on prescription drugs, half are taking two per day, and one in five are on five or more doctor prescribed medications. As healthcare continues to dominate the news, it’s important to get the statistics of purchases so we can better understand what these drugs are doing to individuals and society as a whole.

What’s Prescribed?

The study by the Mayo Clinic finds that the most commonly taken medications are, in descending order, antibiotics, antidepressants, opioids, cholesterol medications and vaccines. These are largely generic drugs as only 22 percent of all drugs sold fall under brand names.

prescription drugs in america

What this shows about the American medical landscape is not new. With heart disease as the leading cause of death in the United States, it’s unsurprising that cholesterol monitoring medicines used to counteract it are some of the most commonly used. However, it’s concerning that opioids are so commonly taken, considering their addictiveness.

Commonly used following a surgery, they can be difficult to wean off of and can lead to serious chemical dependence issues. The prevalence of antidepressants shows that mental health continues to be a significant issue in contemporary American society.

Who’s Getting These?

Antidepressants are most often taken by young and middle-aged adults. More specifically women between the ages of 50 and 64 make up a group in which almost one in four members takes a prescription antidepressant. On the whole, women are more likely than men to take any prescription medications, and as individuals age their likelihood of taking prescription medicines increases.

This is particularly true of drugs that control lipids as the risk of heart disease increases with age.Contrasting this, a majority of antibiotics and asthma medications are prescribed to children and young adults. This is perhaps because of the unwillingness of many adults to take a day off of work for a doctor’s visit compounded with the hyper-attentiveness paid to children’s illnesses.

Who’s Paying for All This?

According to one study, 63 percent of prescription payments were made with some form of assistance from insurance. This is down from 66 percent in 2005. Clearly, this means that either fewer people have been paying for insurance or fewer people have been using the insurance they have. In the near future, with the advent of the Affordable Care Act, the rates of insurance usage are likely to go up.

The same study found that 22 percent of all prescriptions filled were done so with the assistance of Medicare Part D. This is due in large part to the large numbers of seniors taking one or two medicines for chronic conditions in comparison to the wider group of individuals who require a prescription for an acute reason.

One fascinating side effect of that is that within the first four years of the creation of Part D, hospitalization of Medicare recipients decreased by 8 percent and reduced hospitalization-related costs to Medicare by 12 percent. However, the savings total to about 2.2 percent of the total cost of Part D coverage.

Who’s Benefitting, Really?

In 2010, 54 percent of prescriptions were filled at chain pharmacies such as Dwayne Reed, CVS or Walgreens, but the study doesn’t specify where the rest of the money is going. Other locations for purchase of prescription medications include hospitals, supermarkets, independently owned pharmacies, the Internet and cheaper, international pharmacies with online stores.

One interesting recent finding is that the most commonly prescribed medications are not the ones that are making the most money. The single most profitable drugs are ones that are relatively new and still protected by patent law, so the generics that top the most-prescribed list don’t usually make the cut.

The names of these drugs are familiar to most as they have the budget for commercial campaigns to advertise and increase visibility. The top revenue takers are, starting at the top, Lipitor, Nexium, Plavix, Advair, Abilify, Seroquil and Singulair. Altogether these drugs took in $32.8 billion of $307 from 2010.

Altogether, the expenditures on prescription medicine totaled 12 percent of total personal healthcare expenditures. This is only expected to grow in the future. Though the high rates of prescription medication usage is initially startling, in truth, the quality of medicine is significantly higher than at any other point in history, and more diseases can be treated than ever before.

By helping people to live longer, more fulfilling lives, the seemingly disheartening numbers on medicine expenditures should actually be taken to be encouraging.

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