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Academics urge rethink on 28-day prescriptions for people with long-term conditions

Press release issued: 13 March 2018

The widely adopted practice of issuing 28-day rather than longer duration prescriptions for people with long-term conditions lacks a robust evidence base and should be reconsidered, according to a study published in the British Journal of General Practice today [Tuesday 13 March]. Related research shows that considerable savings could be made by the NHS switching to longer prescriptions.

Over a billion NHS prescription items are issued each year by pharmacists in the community, at a cost of over £9 billion. Many of these medications are used for the management of long-term health conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease. Prescriptions for these medications are issued through the 'repeat prescribing' system. This allows patients to request a further supply of medicines without needing to make another appointment with their doctor. Local guidance by clinical commissioning groups in many parts of the country encourages GPs to issue shorter supplies of these repeat medications, partly to reduce wastage. Prescriptions are typically 28 days in length, but this policy has been questioned.

The study, led by RAND Europe in Cambridge and funded by the National Institute for Health Research, examined previously published studies that looked at this issue, dating back as far as 1993. The researchers found nine studies that suggested that longer duration prescriptions are associated with patients being more likely to take their medications (better so-called adherence). They also found six studies that suggested that shorter prescriptions might be associated with less wastage, although these studies were considered to be very low quality.

In related work published in BMJ Open, the researchers undertook an analysis of 11 years of UK GP prescribing data. This found that any savings due to reduced waste resulting from issuing shorter prescriptions were more than offset by greater costs due to the additional work required by GPs and pharmacists. Longer prescriptions could save GPs' time, which could in turn be used to increase time spent with patients. Savings to the NHS from lengthening all prescriptions for statin drugs alone (one of the most commonly prescribed medications) were estimated at £62 million per year.

And in a further economic modelling study, published today in Applied Health Economics and Health Policy, the researchers have shown that if longer prescriptions result in better medication adherence, this could lead to improved health outcomes and, as a result, further reduced costs for the health service.

Dr Rupert Payne, from the University of Bristol’s Centre for Academic Primary Care and one of the study's authors said: "This has been a contentious issue for many years. Our research shows that the current recommendations to issue shorter prescriptions have been based on a lack of sound scientific evidence. There is the potential for longer prescriptions to lead to important benefits, by improving patients' adherence and thus the effectiveness of the drugs, lessening workload for health care professionals, and reducing inconvenience and costs to patients."

However, Dr Payne also cautions that lengthening prescriptions could have undesirable consequences for pharmacists. "Community pharmacies receive a fee for every prescription they dispense. So simply switching every repeat prescription item from, for example, one month to three months, could result in a large reduction in pharmacy income. Therefore, although the NHS may save money, it could lead to a loss of pharmacy services. Changes to policy around the length of repeat prescriptions should also consider how pharmacies are reimbursed."

Dr Ed Wilson, health economist at the University of Cambridge's Primary Care Unit and co-author said: "Our results show that in many cases, longer prescription lengths could indeed both reduce administration costs and improve health outcomes.  This is because longer prescription lengths do seem to be associated with patients taking their medicines more regularly.  However, the evidence base is not perfect so any national change in policy for repeat prescriptions should be phased and needs evaluating fully to make sure we do see the benefits we expect."

Dr Sarah King, Research Fellow at RAND Europe and lead author of the study, said: "Currently, the UK Department of Health and Social Care advises that the frequency of repeat prescriptions should balance patient convenience with clinical appropriateness, cost-effectiveness and patient safety but does not specify a recommended period. Given our study results, CCGs and local NHS may wish to reconsider current recommendations for 28-day prescription lengths for patients with stable chronic conditions."


'The impact of issuing longer versus shorter duration prescriptions – a systematic review' by Sarah King, Celine Miani, Josephine Exley, Jody Larkin, Anne Kirtley, and Rupert A. Payne in British Journal of General Practice

'Long-term costs and health consequences of issuing shorter duration prescriptions for patients with chronic health conditions in the English NHS' by Adam Martin, Rupert A. Payne and Edward C.F. Wilson in Applied Health Economics and Health Policy

'Retrospective, multicohort analysis of the Clinical Practice Research Datalink (CPRD) to determine differences in the cost of medication wastage, dispensing fees and prescriber time of issuing wither short (less than 60 days) or long (less than or equal to 60 days) prescription on lengths in primary care for common, chronic conditions in the UK' by Brett Doble, Rupert A. Payne, Amelia Harshfield and Edward C.F. Wilson in BMJ Open 

'Clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of issuing longer versus shorter duration (3-month vs. 28-day) prescriptions in patients with chronic conditions: systematic review and economic modelling' by Céline Miani, Adam Martin, Josephine Exley, Brett Doble, Edward C.F. Wilson, Rupert A. Payne, Anthony Avery, Catherine Meads, Anne Kirtley, Molly Morgan Jones, and Sarah King in National Institute for Health Research Journals Library

Further information

About the Centre for Academic Primary Care
The Centre for Academic Primary Care (CAPC) at the University of Bristol is a leading centre for primary care research in the UK, one of nine forming the NIHR School for Primary Care Research. It sits within Bristol Medical School, an internationally recognised centre of excellence for population health research and teaching. Follow us on Twitter: @capcbristol

About RAND Europe
RAND Europe is a not-for-profit research organization whose mission is to help improve policy and decision making through research and analysis.

About the University of Cambridge
The mission of the University of Cambridge is to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence. To date, 98 affiliates of the University have won the Nobel Prize.

Founded in 1209, the University comprises 31 autonomous Colleges, which admit undergraduates and provide small-group tuition, and 150 departments, faculties and institutions. Cambridge is a global university. Its 19,000 student body includes 3,700 international students from 120 countries. Cambridge researchers collaborate with colleagues worldwide, and the University has established larger-scale partnerships in Asia, Africa and America.

The University sits at the heart of the 'Cambridge cluster', which employs 60,000 people and has in excess of £12 billion in turnover generated annually by the 4,700 knowledge-intensive firms in and around the city. The city publishes 341 patents per 100,000 residents.

About the National Institute for Heath Research (NIHR)
The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR): improving the health and wealth of the nation through research. Established by the Department of Health and Social Care, the NIHR:

  • funds high quality research to improve health;
  • trains and supports health researchers;
  • provides world-class research facilities;
  • works with the life sciences industry and charities to benefit all;
  • involves patients and the public at every step.

For further information, visit the NIHR website

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