Better use of medicines could save billions

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Wiser use of prescription medications by everyone—doctors and their patients—could save the U.S. health care system more than $200 billion a year. That’s the conclusion of a new report, Avoidable Costs in U.S. Healthcare, from the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics.

Inefficient or ineffective use of medications lead to six million hospitalizations, four million trips to the emergency room and 78 million visits to doctors and other care providers each year, according to the report. Those are huge numbers.

Although $213 billion represents less than 8% of what Americans spend on health care each year, it’s still a staggering sum. It also exacts human costs that aren’t reflected in the estimates.

The report identifies 6 things that can be improved to address the problem:

Not taking medications as directed. Most drugs are prescribed for a good reason. Take antihypertensive medications. They are used to lower blood pressure. Not taking the drug allows blood pressure to remain high, which can lead to a very expensive stroke. There are several reasons why people don’t take medications as prescribed. They include fear of drug side effects, not understanding complications that can occur without treatment, and not being able to afford their medicines. The report estimated that taking medications as directed accounted for almost half of the $213 billion in savings.

Taking too many medications. This has become a huge problem, especially in older people with multiple medical issues. Doctors often add medications based on new symptoms, but seldom tell their patients to stop taking drugs prescribed earlier or lower doses. The more medications a person takes, the greater the chances he or she will experience a harmful interaction between medications.

Delayed treatment. Doctors can’t prescribe potentially health-saving medications if they don’t know that patients need it. Better screening for a hidden condition like hepatitis C, for example, could identify those with it, and get them started on medication that could prevent costly cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer, or the need for a liver transplant.

Overuse of antibiotics. Far too many doctors still prescribe antibiotics for upper respiratory infections, simple bronchitis, and ear infections, even though many of these are caused by viruses (which aren’t affected by antibiotics) and many get better just as fast without an antibiotic. This adds unnecessary costs for the unneeded antibiotics. Use of antibiotics can cause side effects such as severe allergic reactions and diarrhea, which can lead to hospitalization. It can also help create bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, a growing problem in the United States.

Medication errors. Errors occur in different stages of medication use. Doctors sometimes prescribe the wrong drug or dosage. Pharmacists sometimes prepare or dispense the wrong drug or dosage. And sometimes patient take, or are given, the wrong drug or dosage. These all add up to unnecessary side effects that can harm health or cause death.

Underuse of generic medications. Many people are reluctant to take generic medications instead of their brand-name versions, even though generics contain and deliver the same active ingredients as brand names. And many doctors don’t tell their patients about generic alternatives unless the patient asks.

The United States spends more money on health care per person than any other country in the world (17.6% of our gross domestic product versus 11.6% in France and Germany). But we are far from number one in quality of health care. In fact, among 17 of the leading industrialized nations, the United States ranked dead last in life expectancy.

Better use of medications won’t solve our health-care spending crisis, but it can help. What would really save us money, and improve our health, is preventing disease with a healthy lifestyle. The biggest bang would come from beginning that in childhood and maintaining it throughout life, but starting at any time will help.

Related Information: Harvard Health Letter


  1. Seriously a person appear to realize the stuff cheers for producing that really in depth post along with together with all introducing photos! Thanks!

  2. classical homeopathy

    It is about time to give a try to alternative medicine and to accept it as more equal to medicine. after all, if we take a look on the Chaineese medicine, it has thousonds of years of experience. Homeopathy have over 200 years of clinical trails & experience, and even proved to be good and working well, by the Swiss goverment.
    Meds & drugs lead somtimes to disasters especially when taken not by medical advice.
    More & more people die from bad subscription or wrong one’ or from overuse or from side effects of 2 or more medications that they are alergic to….

    So, why not giving alternative medicine a try? why don’t we try to make our world more “DRUGS FREE”?
    Well my friends- the answer hangs there and screams out loud- bad interests of drug companies.
    Just think about it, just think!

  3. Messages si controversé où plus de gens sont en désaccord sont les plus susceptibles de générer le plus de réponses. Alors que la plupart bien motivée et entièrement pensé pièce pourrait laisser rien d’autre à dire sauf «bon poste».

  4. Oliver

    This seems to be a general problem anywhere in the western hemisphere: people only see their own small world but do not reflect how much money you spend as a whole nation.


  5. Thanks with regard to submitting this kind of helpful article! You might have made it easier for me a whole lot in addition to We are guaranteed for you to send good friends over to go through this excellent content.

  6. Baju Senam Murah

    I think about point number 4 Overuses of Antibiotics is often happen alot in my country. because many doctor at the first visit already use it to cure illnes especially for children.

  7. You’ve got helped us a good deal on this fantastic write-up!

  8. Health Blogs that Accept Guest Posts

    Thanks for this informative post.This is really needful post.This is very useful information regarding better usage of medicine.

  9. Amazing Article! Incredibly in depth and very helpful. I know this specific experienced aided a lot of people available continue the good work friend!: ).

  10. My spouse and i liked reading through your own publish. Continue the good work friend!

  11. sunshinecares

    I would like to say thanks for this informative post really I am getting lots of information about medicines and Better use of medicines from their.I really Appreciate this.

  12. Kat

    I think the concern about overuse of antibiotics has gotten out of hand among some physicians. Last winter I was horribly ill with the flu and spent more than $200 out of pocket in OTCs the doctor recommended, an inhaler because the flu triggered my asthma, and co-payments for three doctor visits. Not the mention time lost from work which cost my employer, clients, and the tax payers money because an important project was substantially delayed due to my illness. Finally I gave up on my doctor, went to an emergency clinic on the weekend, was diagnosed with a secondary infection (bronchitis), finally prescribed antibiotics,took them the same day, and was almost fully recovered and back to work on Monday. I had been out of work or stumbling in trying to do what I could for 3 weeks. Although antibiotics do not cure viruses, they prevent serious secondary infections that often result from viruses and cause more morbidity and lost productivity than the initial viral infection. This is true even among healthy, relatively young adults like myself.

  13. Like a Beginner, I will be continually looking at on the web with regard to content articles that can help us. Thanks.

  14. It’s better to prevent the occurance of diseases instead taking top drugs or medication 🙂
    Yes, If at first we’re have healthy lifestyle, I believed that we would have a low risk of any diseases or even complication…

Commenting has been closed for this post.