Doctor, do I have to stay on these medications?

This is the first article in the ‘Blogging on Demand’ series. If you have a topic you want me to blog about, feel free to send an email, contact me via social media or leave a comment below. Jen Morris picked the topic of this post. She tweeted me saying: “I’d love a GP view on polypharmacy, deprescribing & importance of reviewing and stopping treatment, not just continuing indefinitely.”

I really like this topic. I’ll explain why. It’s fair to say I have a love-hate relationship with medications. They can do a lot of good, but also cause misery. Prescribing drugs is a bit like cooking, and getting the balance of the different ingredients right an art: Use too little and your dinner guests are unimpressed, use too much and it becomes unpalatable.

There are many guidelines in medicine informing us when to use which ingredients, but unlike cooking books, they never tell when a dish should be taken out of the oven, or, in other words, when to stop treatment. This is odd, especially as patients often rightly ask: “Doctor, do I have to stay on these medications for the rest of my life?”

Here is a summary of the why, when and how to stop long-term medications – based on the limited amount of evidence available. For more information I refer to the sources mentioned below.

#1: Why stop medications?

Research shows that elderly people often feel better after their medication is discontinued. One study found that only 2% of the medications had to be restarted because the original symptoms reoccurred. This suggests that many people take medications unnecessarily.

It is estimated that up to 30% of hospital admissions for elderly patients are related to the medications they take. Reviewing the medication list periodically is therefore important, for example after the annual home medication review by the pharmacist.

#2: When to consider stopping

There may be good reasons why, after review, it is better to continue long-term medications. But there are 5 circumstances when stopping should be considered:

  1. A patient is taking multiple (more than 4) drugs
  2. An adverse drug reaction is suspected
  3. The drug doesn’t work (anymore)
  4. A patient experiences falls or cognitive decline
  5. The condition of the patient improves or worsens dramatically.

 #3: How to stop

Deprescribing can be done safely, but is not without risks. Withdrawal symptoms, rebound syndromes and reappearance of the original symptoms may occur. Medication withdrawal should be undertaken in consultation with a doctor.

The literature suggests different methods, but I particularly like the following simple 5-step approach:

  1. Prepare: Always consider the option of deprescribing at the start of a therapy, in case it is required later on.
  2. Recognise the need to stop: are any of the above mentioned 5 circumstances applicable?
  3. Prioritise one drug at a time to stop.
  4. Wean, especially benzodiazepines, opioids, beta blockers, corticosteroids, and levodopa.
  5. Monitor: Look out for withdrawal symptoms, discontinuation and rebound syndromes, reoccurrence of illness, falls, and changes in cognition and quality of life.

Research into deprescribing has mainly been done in elderly people taking multiple drugs. I believe it is not unreasonable to apply the same principles to younger people, even if they are on a smaller amount of long-term medications.

I always find it extremely satisfying if we manage to cut the number or dose of someone’s medications – and most patients seem to be equally pleased. Less is sometimes more.

Thanks to Jen Morris for the topic suggestion.