The NHS is throwing away an estimated 1,500 tonnes of unused medicines every year – at a cost to the taxpayer of £370m.
Nurses yesterday described how they had found black bin bags full of unopened boxes of medicine in patients' homes – while others had continued hoarding repeat prescriptions, despite having no intention of taking the drugs.
Under present rules, drugs that leave pharmacies cannot be returned – even if they have not been opened. Many patients are sent automatic repeat prescriptions, regardless of whether they still need the drugs, while compliance rates for people on long-term medication is just 50 per cent. Nurses at the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) conference in Liverpool voted overwhelmingly in favour of calling for action to stop medicines being repeatedly ordered but never taken.
Christine Thomas, a nurse from Wales, said all medicines should be labelled with the price they cost the NHS so that patients were aware how much money they were wasting.
She told how one morbidly obese patient prescribed slimming pills never took them. "She kept ordering them every month, even though she had no intention of ever taking them because they ruined her appetite."
Ms Thomas added: "I and many colleagues have visited patients with cupboards and drawers bursting with lotions, potions, creams, dressings and even supplementary drinks. Many are out of date but are being re-ordered just in case somebody knows someone who might want them one day.
"There's a widespread belief that if [patients] don't re-order things every month, [drugs] will be discontinued."
Another nurse, Yvonne Thomas, said many patients got used to re-ordering "out of habit". She said she had frequently collected full black bags of unused medicines from homes, while her 86-year-old neighbour had 40 packs of paracetamol obtained on prescription.
Nurse John Hill said one patient was brought into A&E by paramedics who collected all the medication they could find in his flat. "They brought in four carrier bags full of unused medication – more than 250 sealed boxes. What happened to the safeguards on that gentleman is anybody's guess." Nurse BJ Waltho said stopping this wasteful practice could be a quick way of saving the NHS money and preventing job losses in the service. "This is a real quick win here," she said. "Perhaps we should be saying 'medicines not nurses'."
Last November, a report commissioned by the Department of Health found that unused medicines were costing the NHS at least £300 million a year in England, although this was likely to be an underestimate. Scotland and Wales account for waste of £70m while in Northern Ireland the figure is just £2.5m – after a public education campaign.
The English study included an estimated £90m worth of unused prescription medicines retained in people's homes at any one time.