Strategies to Improve Medication Safety and Reduce Harm in Polypharmacy

Celina B
Polypharmacy

In our previous blog, we discussed high-risk situations arising from look-alike, sound-alike (LASA) medications and high-alert medications which can cause significant medication harm. In this blog, we will talk about how to improve medication safety and adopt strategies to reduce polypharmacy, a term that refers to the use of multiple medications at the same time by one person.


Medicines can provide many benefits in treating and preventing health problems. However, at times polypharmacy can be inappropriate.
For example, people may still be taking medicines that are not working or no longer needed; medicines may have been prescribed to treat the side effects of other medicines or other treatment options which might lead to severe side effects or harm. Elderly people with multiple chronic diseases are the most vulnerable group in polypharmacy.

Statistics on Impact of Polypharmacy

Inappropriate polypharmacy is one of the most significant public health issues facing us today, especially amongst the elderly. Polypharmacy increases medication safety risk due to the likelihood of side effects, risk of interactions between medications and making medicine adherence more difficult. This challenge is set to increase as the population ages (in some countries) and more people suffer from multiple chronic diseases. 

 

The depth and breadth of polypharmacy’s impact on are highlighted in the following statistics:

50% of hospital admissions due to Adverse Drug Events (ADEs) are preventable. 70% of these are inpatients over 65 years of age and on 5 or more medicines.

67% of elder people are taking five or more prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, and supplements

Polypharmacy increases the risk of ADEs, from 13%, which is associated with taking two medications, to 58%, which is associated with five drugs

8.6 million unplanned hospital admissions were caused by ADEs in Europe every year. 70% of these inpatients are over 65 years of age.

Risks and Challenges due to Polypharmacy

In general, the issue of polypharmacy mainly revolves around the elderly (65 years of age and above). Let us review some of the commonly discussed challenges, including adverse effects, medication adherence issues, and most recently the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    • ● More medication means a more complex dose schedule as well. Even if patients use a calendar to schedule dose intake, they may still experience occasional poor compliance or confusion with multiple doses.

    • Side effects associated with polypharmacy can create issues with adherence compliance. If a patient is taking medication that causes fatigue, they could sleep through the dosing period. Also, some medications may even cause memory loss in patients leading to double dosing (overdose).

    • Prescribers have tools that can help predict possible adverse drug reactions between medications, they often don’t make up for the fact that polypharmacy raises the risk that medications taken together will lead to potentially harmful interactions.

    • Some medications come with lengthy instructions that spell out the amount of medicine to take, how to take it, frequency of intake, and when not to take the drug so patients have the potential for getting confused due to such LASA drugs.

    • COVID-19 pandemic has taken a significant toll on people, which has translated to substantial increases in medication use. For instance, consumer use of antidepressant, anti-anxiety, and anti-insomnia medications increased the risk of medication errors due to polypharmacy.

Strategies and Tools to Reduce Polypharmacy

The healthcare industry has made significant collective efforts to develop tools that can help tackle the challenges inherent to polypharmacy. The following are some of the strategies and tools your organization can adopt to reduce polypharmacy, increase deprescribing, and help patients achieve substantial clinical and financial benefits.

1. Deprescribing

Deprescribing is considered one of the most effective ways to decrease polypharmacy. It is the planned and systematic process of identifying and reducing or discontinuing medications that may no longer be of benefit or may be causing harm. The main goal is to reduce the potential adverse effects of polypharmacy. This is achieved by multidisciplinary team collaboration and addressing the patient’s current needs and goals of care.

2. MAI Index

The Medication Appropriateness Index (MAI) is a set of 10 questions conceived to help clinicians make deprescribing decisions. Each criterion is rated on a three-point Likert scale. When added up, the resulting score is intended to determine the level of inappropriateness, with a score of 0, meaning the drug is appropriate, and 18 representing maximal inappropriateness.

3. Beers Criteria

The Beers Criteria for Potentially Inappropriate Medication Use in Older Adults, commonly called the Beers List, are guidelines published by the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) for healthcare professionals to help improve the safety of prescribing medications for adults 65 years and older in all except palliative settings. The Beers Criteria are intended to serve as a guide for clinicians and the criteria may be used in conjunction with other information to guide clinicians about safe prescribing in older adults.

4. STOPP/START Criteria

These two resources — the screening tool of older people’s prescriptions (STOPP) and screening tool to alert to right treatment (START) criteria — were first published in 2008 and most recently updated in 2014. The latest versions of STOPP and START include a combined 114 evidence-based criteria — up more than 30% from the original. With the STOPP/START criteria, clinicians can potentially decrease polypharmacy by improving medication appropriateness

5. SIMPATHY Analysis Tool

The goal of the SIMPATHY economic analysis tool is to provide a high-level analysis of the economic costs and benefits associated with carrying out polypharmacy reviews. The analysis follows a top-down approach and estimates maximum costs and benefits associated with activity.

Sources: Adopted from WHO, NCBI, AGS and European Commission

Conclusion

Hospital management plays a significant role in reducing inappropriate polypharmacy and ensuring medication safety. Taking a systems approach with multidisciplinary clinical and policy leadership is good starting point. Nurture a culture that encourages and prioritizes medication safety in your organization. Streamline and standardize your policies, procedures, and protocols as these are critical in managing polypharmacy risks. This applies from initial prescribing practices to regular medication reviews.
 

Adopt one or more of the strategies described above to reduce polypharmacy. Deprescribing is one of the most effective ways. Using tools and technology appropriately to support implementation can be useful and effective. This includes having an online reporting system for medication error reporting. Finally, educate and empower your patients with the right information to make informed decisions. This can go a long way in ensuring the safe use of medicines.

Integrating Quality, Safety and Risk Management in Healthcare

Hak Yek Tan
healthcare-quality

To deliver safer and better care, healthcare providers will need to adopt proactive risk management, system-wide thinking, process digitalisation, effective data monitoring and a culture of continuous improvements.

Medical errors still at alarming rates

Despite sustained efforts by the healthcare industry to improve patient safety over the last two decades, medical errors continue to occur at unacceptable rates globally. A study by Johns Hopkins (2020) showed that more than 250,000 people in the US die every year due to medical errors, making it the 3rd leading cause of death after heart disease (700,000) and cancer (600,000). In Australia, Grattan Institute Report (2018) revealed that one in nine patients suffers a hospital-acquired complication. This figure is not far from WHO statistics which estimates  one in every 10 patients being harmed while receiving hospital care, of which 50% are preventable.

How healthcare responds to incidents matters

The question is, why are we failing to reduce medical harm? To find some answers, a good place to start is to study how healthcare responds to incidents compared to high reliability organisations (HROs), such as airlines and chemical industries.

 

Many case studies on severe safety incidents are available in the public domain, providing great insights and learning. The airline industry conducts thorough investigation and Root cause analysis (RCA) on all direct and indirect causes, reviews procedures and takes a system-wide approach to identify the root causes of incidents. The process is transparent and carried out by independent team of experts. Findings are shared with all industry players. Changes often become industry safety protocols, while regulations are reviewed and updated.

On the other hand, case studies on medical incidents often give a different picture. We read about full blame being put on individuals, despite evidence of system failures; whistle-blower who exposed hospital shortcomings and weaknesses getting blacklisted; and misuse of monitoring devices and catastrophic clinical oversight being investigated at department level, instead of at the organizational or even manufacturer level. These are not consistent with responses expected from HROs.

Challenge our current thinking and learn from HROs

Healthcare today is a highly complex operation. We need to challenge our current thinking on management practices. One approach which has been advocated by many is to learn from safety-critical industries, and understand how these industries achieve impeccable safety records.

Compared to HROs, we often find a high level of process complexity and variation in healthcare settings. An example is incident management where each department or unit may have their own workflow. There is a general lack of system-wide thinking to understand and prioritize risks. In many cases, after investigations and RCA are completed, only short-term fixes are taken instead of profound system changes that can prevent adverse incidents from recurring.

Having a fragmented management system with silo applications is one of the reasons for quality failures and ineffective health systems. A direct impact of this is in the lack of timely and more complete data sets from different sources, critical for effective monitoring and analysis. Finally, the blame culture sadly remains a common challenge many hospitals are still facing today. People are afraid to speak up. In contrast, HROs have a mature culture of safety and continuous improvement, open discussion, and active learning.

Five key learnings

Notwithstanding healthcare sector’s unique challenges, we believe the following key learnings can help healthcare providers in developing and sustaining a culture and system to deliver safe and reliable care:

    • ● Streamlined and standardized processes
    • ● System-wide thinking to identify root causes
    • ● Proactive risk and hazard identification, mitigation, and review
    • ● Effective data monitoring, measurement, and analytics
    • ● A culture of continuous improvement and active learning
Taking an integrated, systems and risk-based approach

These key learnings and management practices call for an integrated and systems approach in managing quality, safety, and risk in healthcare. A systems approach will help us better understand how different parts of the hospital operations are impacting patient safety and influencing health outcomes, and the relationship between different elements. Policies, procedures, and processes should be designed with this in mind in to deliver better quality of care at lower cost.

 

Healthcare providers should shift from being reactive to proactive in risk and hazard identification and mitigation. Make risk assessment an integral part of quality and safety management. Take a risk-based approach in prioritizing your next quality improvement initiatives.

Risk management in healthcare should go beyond patient safety and medical liabilities. With the increasing adoption of health technologies, higher cybersecurity threats, and shortages in health workers, risk management is becoming more complex and critical in hospital management. A comprehensive framework should cover multiple risk domains including operational, clinical and patient safety, financial, strategic, human capital, technology, legal and regulatory, and the environment.

Effective implementation requires a robust, integrated platform

Having an integrated software system is essential in operationalising these practices to achieve effective management. Manual processes can be ineffective in incident and risk management, even with established processes and procedures in place. Process digitalisation is the way forward and technologies are making it possible. An integrated solution allows for linking of processes and better understanding on how various parts are impacting safety and quality of care. It enables effective data monitoring, measurement, and analysis, providing valuable insights for decision-making. Also, it can serve as a communication and collaborative platform, further enhancing a culture of open discussion and active learning.

Risk management, incident management, audit management and feedback management can form the core of an integrated system. Other management processes and functionalities that can be added are mortality & morbidity reporting, clinical quality review and training & competency management. The system can be further expanded to include workplace safety and environmental related processes such as HIRARC (hazard identification, risk assessment and risk control), chemical register and waste management. These can be implemented in phases as your business grows and processes mature.

Lastly, a platform with robust system capabilities is needed. System requirements especially for large healthcare organisations can be demanding. The platform should be configurable, scalable, and flexible to meet specific requirements in organizational structure, workflow, process routing and email notification. Robust security access control and data security is a must. Multi integration methods will be needed, as system interfaces with EMR, CRM, HR system and enterprise data warehouse are often required. Insightful reporting and data analytics can provide an aggregated view on performance and risks to the management. A solution provider with healthcare domain expertise is also a key success factor.

Embarking on your hospital’s digitalisation journey

For smaller hospitals and healthcare settings, the journey on digitalisation of quality management processes can start with online incident reporting. Studies have shown that online incident reporting encourages people to report incidents, helps to build a safety culture, and facilitates learning. A comprehensive solution with investigation, RCA, action tracking and collaborative features can help turn incident reporting into improvement opportunities in your organization.

The above article was first published by HMA on 1 September 2022. You can Click Here to access it.