Researchers are calling for a national strategy on the appropriate use of medicines, after a new study estimates that more than $400 million a year is spent in Canada on drugs prescribed to seniors, even though those drugs should be avoided by older patients.

The UBC study, published Wednesday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal Open, estimates that Canada spent about $419 million in 2013 on drugs prescribed to seniors that aren’t appropriate for them.

When factoring in hospital visits and other repercussions that stem from the use of inappropriate drugs, the study says the cost to Canada's healthcare system is closer to $2 billion.

Many medications pose a greater risk to older adults, due to physiological changes associated with aging. The use of these inappropriate medications in seniors is relatively common and can lead to unnecessary hospital visits, and even an increased risk of death, the study says.

Steve Morgan, a professor at UBC's school of population and public health and lead author of the study, said Canada is wasting money on drugs that are known to pose more risks than benefits to seniors.

"Canada urgently needs a national strategy to ensure that older patients receive only those medications that are appropriate for their health and for their age," he said in a statement.

For the study, researchers examined drug prescription claims data for 2013 from the National Prescription Drug Utilization Information system database. The database contains prescription claims from publicly financed drug plans in all of the Canadian provinces, except Quebec.

Specifically, the researchers looked for prescriptions filled by patients aged 65 and older that are listed as potentially inappropriate by the American Geriatrics Society.

The American Geriatrics Society produces a document, known as the Beers Criteria, that lists medicines that pose greater risks to seniors. The well-established list is often used by doctors to avoid prescribing drugs that may harm older patients.

The researchers found the following using the 2013 prescription claims data and the 2012 version of the Beers Criteria:

  • 37 per cent of older Canadians filled one or more prescriptions deemed inappropriate for patients older than 65;
  • Sedatives were the most commonly prescribed drug, and were the leading contributor to costs;
  • Women were more likely than men to fill these prescriptions.

Morgan said patients and their families should have more conversations with their healthcare providers about what kinds of medications they're taking, and whether the prescribed drugs are appropriate.

"We hope these findings help destigmatize discussions on medication use and that healthcare providers make time for these important conversations," he said. "We need to ask more questions like: 'Am I (or is my mother or father) on the right kind of medicine?'"

The researchers point to other countries that have developed a national strategy on the appropriate use of medicines. For example, a national strategy helped improve patient health and decrease drug costs in Australia, the researchers said.

Morgan believes a similar Canadian strategy would cost between $40 to $60 million to develop, but would be quickly offset by the potential savings.