This study informs on the use of medication by the elderly population during five years of follow up, according to the ten most common MPs. Predictably, the most overrepresented drugs in each MP coincide with the most overrepresented disorders in that same MP. Also, the medicines most prescribed in the study population remain unchanged throughout the follow up period. The analysis of polypharmacy based on specific MPs and their association with abnormal liver and kidney function has revealed that the patients included in the various MPs present high rates of abnormal liver and kidney function when compared to the MP C1-Non-Specific, underlining the need for new safety criteria in these patients (32, 33).
Polypharmacy and their evolution
In C2-Eye Impairment and Mental, the medicines most frequently prescribed correspond to the ocular disorders diagnosed. However, in other groups of diseases of this MP, for instance the Neurotic, stress-related and somatoform diseases, which correspond mainly to cigarette consumption, the pharmacological treatment is not subsidised by the public health system and consequently does not appear in the Pharmacy Invoice Registry.
In C3-Minority Metabolic Autoimmune-Inflammatory, over 50% of diseases are exclusive of this cluster. However, even if the medication is associated with overrepresented conditions, it does not have high exclusivity since these medicines have different authorised indications, for instance glucocorticoids and Vitamin D and analogues, which are even indicated off-label (34, 35).
The MPs C4-Cardio-Circulatory and Renal and C5-Cardio-Circulatory, Mental, Respiratory and Genitourinary, illustrate the patients with multimorbidity who are prescribed polypharmacy to treat overrepresented diseases. In addition, some diseases as diabetes that are not overrepresented might need various medicines to control the condition. Moreover, recent intensification of treatments has translated into an increase in drug prescription. (36, 37)
In C9-Neurological, Musculoskeletal and Minor, metamizole has replaced traditional NSAIDs, probably due to emerging safety concerns of NSAIDs regarding the kidney (38), cardiovascular (39, 40), and digestive systems (39).
Abnormal kidney and liver failure function
This study shows that most patients with multimorbidity receiving polypharmacy present abnormal kidney and liver function. While the design of this study cannot explain the causes of the abnormal kidney and liver function observed, we hypothesise that they probably originate from the baseline disorders of the patients, adverse effects from the medication, inappropriate prescribing and lack of adjustment to the kidney and liver function of each patient, which are usually affected by old age (11–13, 41–43). This study, based on medication packages dispensed in pharmacies, underlines the importance of stringent monitoring of prescriptions, particularly in patients that might have abnormal kidney and liver function. We recommend the use of prompts in the electronic health records to adjust medication dosage in accordance with liver function and glomerular filtration rates.
Abnormal kidney function is highest in patients from MPs C4 and C3. In MP C4 -Cardio-Circulatory and Renal, in addition to the baseline kidney and cardiovascular disorders of these patients, abnormal kidney function has been attributed to the hemodynamic effects of diuretics causing nephrotoxicity (41). The MP C3-Minority Metabolic Autoimmune-Inflammatory includes patients with hypothyroidism (44) and overrepresentation of allopurinol, both causes of abnormal kidney function.
Abnormal liver function is highest in patients from clusters C8 and C4. The risk is highest in patients in C8 - Digestive, since this pattern represents patients with liver disease. C4- Cardio-Circulatory and Renal has the oldest patients and the highest prescription of vitamin K antagonists, which can cause cholestasis (42).
Comparison with the literature
Most studies on MPs use a cross-sectional design. Some publications include longitudinal data, but to our knowledge no data on the association of MPs and abnormal kidney and liver function have been published. (45). In the literature, European articles underscore medication for depression and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in the elderly (18), which we included in clusters C9 and C5, respectively. In contrast, Japanese authors observe the highest risk of polypharmacy in malignant, digestive and urologic patterns (17). While we excluded drugs for the treatment of malignancies in our study, we did not observe overrepresentation of drugs for the gastrointestinal system, since they are the type of medication most consumed in the general population, nor for urological diseases, which are highly prevalent in the population over 65 years. Interestingly, in the Japanese study only 25% of patients were over 65 years of age. Ultimately, if we analysed the drugs overrepresented in specific patterns such as the cardiovascular (C4 and C5), these medicines would practically replicate polypharmacy patterns described in other publications (18), i.e., drugs for cardiovascular diseases, for diabetes and for gout. However, our medication patterns included also the treatments for other diseases in MPs C4 and C5, for instance anaemia, pain, glaucoma, COPD and benign prostatic hyperplasia.
Strengths and limitations
One of the major strengths of this study is the use of a large, high-quality database that originates from the primary care electronic health records, which includes a large proportion of the population with multimorbidity and with polypharmacy (23). Furthermore, we have used a classification for chronic diseases previously validated by a clinically driven methodology, which allows a homogeneous assessment of chronic diseases and polypharmacy in a manageable number of categories, and also the uniform evaluation of chronicity in the European Union (24).
This study also presents some limitations. Firstly, we only considered the medications for which at least three packages during each year of the study period had been dispensed. While this could underestimate some medicines, it is extremely unusual to dispense less than 3 packages per year of drugs treating chronic diseases. Similarly, we excluded the medication for acute conditions, some of which can cause temporary abnormalities in kidney and liver function. Secondly, the SIDIAP only collects information on drugs prescribed by primary care and hospital physicians which are dispensed by community pharmacies. Consequently, our analysis cannot rule out active ingredients included in hospital drug regimes, over-the-counter medicines and para-pharmacy products, which might also impair kidney and liver function. Thirdly and finally, censoring of people who died and people who transferred might have influenced estimations of risk associations in a competing-risk scenario, which was not an objective of this study.
Our research shows that while prescription of polypharmacy might be justified with regard to clinical guidelines, it increases the risk of adverse drug reactions and might negatively affect kidney and liver function. Crucially, the risk of overtreatment, which occurs when the prescribed medications have no clinically significant benefit and when the risk of adverse effects associated with an additional medication outweighs the overall benefit of the treatment, is high in polypharmacy (46, 47).