A nation of pill poppers: NHS dishes out more prescriptions than EVER before

By | March 28, 2019

NHS prescriptions for antidepressants DOUBLE in a decade as official figures reveal doctors are dishing out more drugs than ever

  • Prescribing figures show the NHS cut its bill by more than £300m in 2018 
  • Prescriptions for certain statins and antidepressants have rocketed in 10 years 
  • High blood pressure and cholesterol cause huge numbers of prescriptions 

The number of NHS prescriptions written to treat depression has almost doubled in the past 10 years, official figures revealed today.

More than 70million lots of antidepressants were given to patients struggling with their mental health in 2018, up from just 36m in 2008.

The data revealed the NHS last year handed out more prescriptions overall than ever – dishing out 1,108,683,483 scripts.

However, the total it spent dropped by £336million, falling from £9.1bn to £8.8bn, which was the biggest single-year drop in spending for more than a decade. 

Unhealthy lifestyles and bulging waistlines remain the biggest driver of prescription meds, with those treating high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes making up many of the 20 most common.

There are also huge numbers of pills being dished out to treat depression, pain and asthma.

The number of items prescribed by the NHS has risen from 845.2million in 2008 to 1.105bn in 2018 – the total cost of prescriptions in 2018 was £8.8bn

The number of items prescribed by the NHS has risen from 845.2million in 2008 to 1.105bn in 2018 – the total cost of prescriptions in 2018 was £8.8bn

People in England are taking more prescription pills than ever, NHS figures revealed today, but the health service managed to make its biggest financial savings for more than 10 years between 2017 and 2018 (stock image)

People in England are taking more prescription pills than ever, NHS figures revealed today, but the health service managed to make its biggest financial savings for more than 10 years between 2017 and 2018 (stock image)

Annual prescribing data for the NHS in 2018 was released by the health service this morning. 

Three types of antidepressants are now among the 20 most commonly prescribed medications. 

Sertraline, citalopram and amitriptyline are all now among the most taken drugs in England – a total of 42.4million of them were prescribed last year.

And the number of the antidepressant sertraline hydrochloride packs prescribed saw nearly a seven-fold rise between 2008 and 2018 – from 2.1m to 14.8m.

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, said: ‘It can be difficult to determine why prescribing rates fluctuate.

‘These figures could indicate rising awareness of mental health conditions in society, and that more patients are feeling able to seek medical care for them – as well as demonstrating an improvement in the identification and diagnosis of mental health conditions.’

The figures showed the NHS in England spends the most money on drugs to treat the brain – those for dementia, epilepsy, mental health disorders and pain conditions, for example. 

WHAT IS THE NHS SPENDING ITS MONEY ON? 

If you think the NHS only dishes out prescriptions for diabetes drugs and cholesterol-busting statins, you would be wrong. 

For GPs and other medics can write out scripts for anal plugs, vacuum pumps for erectile dysfunction and even hosiery, among other items. 

The NHS figures showed £10.2million was spent on hosiery in 2018, followed by £3.2million on toiletries such as shampoo.

A further £2.8million went on vaginal moisturisers, £759,000 to anal plugs for faecal incontinence and £121,000 for cordials and soft drinks.

And the NHS spent £55,000 on homeopathic preparations – despite guidance to stop dishing it out by health chiefs in 2017.  

Slings on prescription cost the health service £19.2million, while sun creams cost around £1.2million and vaccuum pumps for ED cost £1.7million. 

It spent more than £50,000 on prescriptions for cocaine and ketamine – which are used in mouthwashes and as injected painkillers. 

The statistics showed medicines based on cocaine cost the health service £28,934 and ketamine £22,479 in 2018. 

Cocaine is part of mouthwash given out by doctors and ketamine is used as a high-strength painkiller or local anaesthetic.

Professor Roger Knaggs, a pharmaceutical expert at the University of Nottingham said: ‘Cocaine is a very old local anaesthetic and used occasionally in hospitals… it can be used as a mouthwash for oral inflammation and ulceration in palliative care.’ 

The category for central nervous system drugs was the most costly, with its medications costing more than £1.5billion.

It was followed by £1.3bn on hormone medications, such as those used to treat diabetes and thyroid problems, and including steroids and contraceptives.

But the category in which the most drugs are prescribed is that for conditions of the heart and circulatory system – statins, blood thinners and high blood pressure pills, for example. Some 324.2million items were prescribed in this group.

The most prescribed drug continues to be atorvastatin, a cholesterol-lowering pill (statin) which was handed out 41.8million times in 2018 – up from 37m in 2017.    

Changes to prescription numbers of the past 10 years were also revealed in the figures, published by NHS Digital. 

As well as a rise in antidepressants they revealed huge spikes in certain drugs for type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol between 2018 and 2008.

Almost four times as many packs of the the most-prescribed statin, atorvastatin, were used last year than in 2008, with a 270 per cent rise in its use. 

And the number of drugs used to treat diabetes has rocketed from 593m in 2008 to 1.062bn last year.

The condition is on the rise as more people become dangerously fat – 64 per cent of adults in England are now overweight or obese. 

In a more bizarre statistic, the health service continues to spend dozens of thousands of pounds on drugs that are illegal on the street – its bill for cocaine was almost £29,000 and it spent £22,000 on ketamine. 

The figures cover the year in which the NHS banned GPs and other prescribers from, in most circumstances, dishing out medicines which could be bought in shops.

However, prescribing for paracetamol and aspirin – which can be bought for pennies in shops – remains high.

Paracetamol prescriptions fell from 20m to 18.5m over the year, while aspirin dropped from 24.8m to 23.5m.

Together they cost about £58million over the year.

And despite the move against products people could buy themselves, medics are still prescribing millions of pounds worth of brand-name remedies.

Almost £20million was spent on prescribing Gaviscon products, for example, which treat heartburn and indigestion but are easy to buy in shops.

Some £4.5million was spent on erectile dysfunction medicines like Viagra, even though the blue pill became available over-the-counter last year.

And more than £40,000 was spent on cod liver oil tablets from brands including Seven Seas and even Tesco.

WHICH DRUGS DID THE NHS SPEND THE MOST MONEY ON IN 2018? 
Drug name What it’s for Cost in 2018
Enteral Nutrition Tube feeding £264,031,701
Beclometasone Dipropionate Asthma steroid £237,957,660
Apixaban Blood thinner £223,354,977
Fluticasone Propionate (Inh) Corticosteroid (various) £215,094,504
Rivaroxaban Blood thinner £194,482,896
Glucose Blood Testing Reagents Blood glucose monitoring for diabetes £169,605,465
Budesonide Asthma steroid £144,240,393
Tiotropium Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma £138,054,901
Other Food For Special Diet Preps Specialist food £103,265,578
Sitagliptin Diabetes £92,381,523
Colecalciferol Vitamin D deficiency £92,099,465
Metformin Hydrochloride Type 2 diabetes £91,784,506
Influenza Flu vaccine £91,607,127
Insulin Aspart Diabetes £83,298,592
Mesalazine (Systemic) Inflammatory bowel disease £81,786,498
Insulin Glargine Diabetes £78,262,671
Solifenacin Overactive bladder £74,473,244
Levothyroxine Sodium Underactive thyroid £66,640,191
Co-Codamol (Codeine Phos/Paracetamol) Pain relief £65,962,616
Quetiapine Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia £60,618,331

IS THE NHS STILL SPENDING MONEY ON PARACETAMOL AND ASPIRIN?

The NHS banned prescriptions for ‘over-the-counter’ remedies in a desperate attempt to save money last March. 

Cough mixture, eye drops, laxatives, sun creams, paracetamol and anti-dandruff shampoo were among the products curbed.

However, prescribing for paracetamol and aspirin – which can be bought for pennies in shops – remains high.

Paracetamol prescriptions fell from 20m to 18.5m over the year, while aspirin dropped from 24.8m to 23.5m. Together they cost about £58million over the year. 

Paracetamol prescriptions cost the NHS £2.36, on average. A pack of 16 tablets can be picked up for 20p at shops.

Cough mixture, eye drops, laxatives and suncreams were also among the everyday items that shouldn’t be prescribed.

The move was intended as a money-saver for the health service which is being crippled by a cash shortage.

The total spend on medicines in England rose from £13bn in 2011 to £17.4bn, according to the King’s Fund think-tank – an increase of a third (34 per cent).

But in the same period the Department of Health budget only rose by eight per cent from £112bn to £122bn.

Effects of the money problems are being seen in hospitals and A&E departments which had their ‘toughest month to date’ in February, with only six out of 135 acute hospital trusts hitting waiting time targets.  

WHAT WERE THE MOST COMMONLY PRESCRIBED DRUGS BY THE NHS IN 2018?
Drug name What it treats Items prescribed 2018 Total cost
Atorvastatin High cholesterol (statin) 41,820,664 £51,360,709
Levothyroxine Sodium Underactive thyroid 32,187,950 £66,640,191
Omeprazole Acid reflux, stomach ulcer 31,038,076 £44,826,955
Amlodipine High blood pressure 29,052,338 £40,862,905
Ramipril High blood pressure 28,605,025 £41,340,802
Lansoprazole Acid reflux, stomach ulcer 25,461,167 £29,327,149
Simvastatin High cholesterol (statin) 24,303,261 £21,929,754
Bisoprolol Fumarate High blood pressure, heart failure 23,625,562 £15,523,892
Colecalciferol Vitamin D deficiency 23,609,903 £92,099,465
Aspirin Pain 23,474,630 £14,200,579
Metformin Hydrochloride Type 2 diabetes 21,806,787 £91,784,506
Salbutamol Asthma 21,597,533 £56,278,907
Paracetamol Pain 18,516,491 £43,774,632
Co-Codamol (Codeine Phos/Paracetamol) Pain 15,179,951 £65,962,616
Sertraline Hydrochloride Depression 14,815,719 £15,992,543
Citalopram Hydrobromide Depression 14,136,645 £24,428,236
Amitriptyline Hydrochloride Depression, anxiety 13,532,567 £28,229,533
Beclometasone Dipropionate Asthma 12,891,913 £13,581,621
Furosemide High blood pressure, heart failure 11,945,445 £231,289,752
Influenza Flu (vaccine) 10,287,243 £91,607,127


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