Hospital admissions and even deaths have been linked to the preventable side effects of drugs prescribed in primary care, research shows.
Drugs that have a high risk of causing side effects are being prescribed to around 60,000 people in Scotland.
They discovered cases where anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, were prescribed to patients with kidney problems or stomach ulcers, while people with dementia had been given anti-psychotic drugs.
High-risk prescribing was noted as fairly common, but researchers found that different practices varied greatly in their prescribing habits, the cause of which was “largely unexplained”.
The team said there may be a good reason as to why GPs were offering patients high-risk drugs, particularly in complex situations where there is no obvious “correct” course of action, but that the big differences between practices suggest that prescribing could be made safer.
Professor Bruce Guthrie and his colleagues at the university medical school’s centre for primary care and population research looked at prescribing records and other data from 315 general practices in Scotland with 1.76 million registered patients.
Using a 15-point checklist, they examined the proportion of patients receiving a prescription they deemed to be high-risk.
The team found that 139,404 out of 1,760,223 registered patients were defined as being at risk of receiving selected high-risk drugs, due to factors like their age and pre-existing conditions.
Of those at-risk patients, 19,308 had been prescribed at least one high-risk drug in the previous year, researchers said.
They also claimed that rates of high-risk prescribing varied around four-fold between general practices, even after differences in the patients registered with them were taken into account.
Prof Guthrie said his study looked at a sample of about a third of Scottish patients.
He said: “If you take this across the whole of Scotland, then approximately 60,000 people particularly vulnerable to side effects might be being prescribed high-risk drugs.
“This may be the correct course of action and bring benefits to the patient, but it has to be balanced against the dangers.
“We’re not saying that all this type of prescribing should not be happening, but that we have to be satisfied that it’s appropriate and ensure that doing so doesn’t put the patient at more risk.”