Polypharmacy in the Elderly

A tremendously valuable Educational Pearl from the wonderful UMEM mailing list, courtesy of Amal Mattu, emergency physician extraordinaire.

We already know that polypharmacy is a big issue in the elderly, but here are a few key points to keep in mind:

  1. Adverse drug effects are responsible for 11% of ED visits in the elderly.
  2. Almost 50% of all adverse drug effects in the elderly are accounted for by only 3 drug classes:
    a. oral anticoagulant or antiplatelet agents
    b. antidiabetic agents
    c. agents with narrow therapeutic index (e.g. digoxin and phenytoin)
  3. 1/3 of all adverse-effect-induced ED visits are accounted for by warfarin, insulin, and digoxin.
  4. Up to 20% of new prescriptions given to elderly ED patients represents a potential drug interaction.

The bottom line here is very simple–scrutinize that medication list and any new prescriptions in the elderly patient!

Samaras N, Chevalley T, Samaras D, et al. Older patients in the emergency department: a review. Ann Emerg Med 2010;56:261-269.

The value of this is inestimable. We know that polypharmacy is a big deal, but it’s such a big deal that it can be hard to shrink down the problem enough to really consider it when an elderly patient presents themselves. Could their problem involve something on this med list that’s as long as your arm? Certainly, but where to start?

Start with the above. Over half of your problems will involve anticoagulants, antidiabetics, and easily misdosed drugs. Those are the usual suspects; they should jump out at you from the list. But we can do even better, because nearly half of those will involve one of three particular serial offenders: insulin, warfarin (aka Coumadin), and digoxin. And let’s add a fourth one: any new or recently modified prescriptions. If any of these are present in a patient with an appropriate complaint or presentation, it should be strongly considered as being part of the problem if not the actual smoking gun.

Insulin is easy, especially if you have access to finger-stick glucometry; diabetic emergencies (especially hypoglycemia), including iatrogenic ones, are so common that you might as well assume anybody with an altered mental status is diabetic — even if they aren’t. Definitive treatment is obviously oral glucose or IV dextrose, as appropriate.

Warfarin is still an extremely common anticoagulant, although a couple new alternatives are now available, and it requires close and frequent monitoring of levels in order to maintain a therapeutic dose. (The usual standard is a measure of clotting speed called INR; the test can be performed in the lab, but nowadays can also be done right at the bedside.) Various medication interactions and even dietary changes can shift this range. Overdose is associated with, no surprise, bleeding — in all forms. If necessary, supertherapeutic warfarin levels can be antagonized with Vitamin K or IV clotting factors.

Digoxin is seen less today than in yesteryear, but once upon a time everybody and their mother was on “dig,” and it’s still used with some regularity. Its most common application is for rate control of atrial fibrillation patients. Although other antiarrhythmics are now more common, dig has the peculiar magic of reducing cardiac rate while actually increasing contractility (negative chronotropic but positive inotropic effects). However, its therapeutic range is narrow and is easily shifted by pharmacological, renal, and other issues; as a result, dig toxicity is famously common. Overdose symptoms include GI problems and neurological complaints such as visual disturbances and changes in mood or energy level. It can also present prominently on the ECG, with the most classic sign being degradation of AV conduction with an increase in atrial and ventricular ectopy — for instance, slow A-fib or atrial tachycardia, a third-degree AV block, and a junctional escape with PVCs. (As a result, the atrial fibrillation patient controlled on dig may present with an unexpected “regularization” of his pulses, due to a junctional or ventricular escape taking over from the usual A-fib. This is a clue even the BLS guys can catch.) Treatment is supportive for arrhythmias and heart failure; severe cases can be managed with Digoxin Immune Fab (aka Digibind or Digifab).


  1. Thanks for this post on polypharmacy. The complications of it especially with the elderly population is really important to understand.

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