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The Burden of Polypharmacy in Patients Near the End of Life.

  • Author(s): McNeil, Michael J
  • Kamal, Arif H
  • Kutner, Jean S
  • Ritchie, Christine S
  • Abernethy, Amy P
  • et al.

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Patients with advanced illness are prescribed multiple medications in the last year of life, intensifying the risk of negative consequences related to polypharmacy.


To describe the medication burden of patients near the end of life and identify potential areas for improvement in clinician prescribing practices.


This was a prespecified secondary analysis of data from a prospective trial. Eligible participants were adults with less than 12 months estimated prognosis taking a statin medication for primary prevention of cardiovascular disease. Participants were enrolled from 15 sites, randomized to continue or discontinue statin medications, and followed for up to a year. Concomitant medications were recorded at least monthly from study enrollment through death. Prescribed medications were categorized by class and subclass. Descriptive statistics were calculated.


On average, participants (n = 244) were 74.3 years old (SD 11.5) and lived 264 days (SD 128); 47.5% of the patients had a primary diagnosis of malignant tumor. This population was exposed to medications across 51 classes, 192 subclasses, and 423 individual medications. Patients took an average of 11.5 (SD 5) medications at the time of enrollment and 10.7 (SD 5) medications at death or study termination. The five most common classes of medications prescribed near the end of life were antihypertensives, broncholytics/bronchodilators, laxatives, antidepressants, and gastric protection agents.


There is a significant medication burden placed on patients with advanced illness. Although most medications were prescribed for supportive care, we observed a high prevalence of medications for managing non-life-threatening comorbidities.

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