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Surge in antidepressant prescriptions for fourth year running

They accounted for largest numeric rise among all prescription items dispensed in 2016

Caroline White

Friday, 30 June 2017

Antidepressants accounted for the largest numeric rise among all classes of drugs prescribed and dispensed in the community in England in 2016, for the fourth successive year, show the latest figures issued by NHS Digital.

They increased by 3.7 million items (6.0%), from 61.0 million to 64.7 million between 2015 and 2016.

The figures refer to prescriptions written in the UK and dispensed in the community in England by community pharmacists, appliance contractors, and dispensing doctors. As well as prescriptions written by GPs, those written by dentists, nurses, pharmacists and prescriptions written in a hospital or a community health trust have also been included, if they were dispensed by a community pharmacist.

The figures show that the number of antidepressant items has more than doubled in the past decade. In 2016, 64.7 million antidepressant items were dispensed—33.7 million (108.5%) more than in 2006, when 31.0 million were dispensed.

Based on British National Formulary classifications, the therapeutic area, with the greatest number of prescription items dispensed in England in 2016 was for drugs primarily used to treat high blood pressure and heart failure.

A total of 71.5 million items in this area were dispensed, an increase from 2015, when 70.8 million items were dispensed, and a rise of 49.7% (23.7 million) from 2006.

The Net Ingredient Cost (NIC) doesn’t take account of discounts, dispensing costs, fees or prescription charge income, but it shows that for the tenth year in a row, drugs for diabetes cost the most, clocking up £984.2 million—equivalent to £2.7 million every day.

And the cost for this therapeutic area increased by £47.6 million (5.1%) between 2015 and 2016.

The number of items dispensed in the community in England in 2016 to treat the condition came to 51.5 million, an increase of 2.4 million (4.9%) on the figures for 2015.

The therapeutic area with the greatest cost increase between 2015 and 2016 was anticoagulants and protamine (blood-thinning drugs), for which costs rose by £76.6 million (34.5%) to £298.7 million.

The figures also show that in 2016, 1,104.1 million prescription items were dispensed, an increase of 1.9%, (20.5 million) on prescription items dispensed in 2015. This represents a 46.8% (352.2 million) rise on the same figure a decade ago.

The NIC of all prescription items dispensed in 2016 was £9,204.9 million. This is a decrease of 0.7% (£61.8 million) on the cost in 2015 but a 12.3% (£1,008.1 million) increase compared to 2006.

In 2016, most (89.4%) of all prescription items were dispensed free of charge: 61% to patients aged 60 and over and 4.4% to children aged under 16 or young people aged 16 -18 and in full-time education.

Commenting on the new figures, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of Practitioners, said: “These figures look at medications dispensed in the community, not necessarily prescribed by GPs or other prescribers in primary care – but when GPs do prescribe antidepressants, it will have been after a full and frank discussion with the patient in front of them, based on their unique circumstances, and taking into account the physical, psychological and social factors potentially affecting their health.”

She added: “While at face value, the rise might seem alarming, it could also be indicative of better identification and diagnosis of mental health conditions across healthcare – and reducing stigma associated with mental health in society, leading to more people with mental health conditions seeking medical assistance. Both would be positive steps forward as we strive for parity of esteem between physical and mental health.”

She said that no doctor wanted their patients to be reliant on medication, and that where possible doctors always explored alternative treatments, such as talking therapies.

“But there is a severe lack of these services available in the community, where they could be of great benefit to patients. We need more of [them] and we need all GPs to have better, quicker access,” she suggested.

She pointed out that NHS England's GP Forward View pledged for every GP practice to have access to one of 3,000 new mental health therapists.

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