Medicine waste is a significant and costly problem, which many might not realise the true extent of.

While there are measures practitioners and pharmacies can take to help reduce pharmaceutical waste, there are steps patients can take too.

In this article we’ll discuss:

Why can’t medicine be re-issued?

The Department of Health states that any medication products that are issued to a patient, and consequently leave the pharmacy building, cannot be reused or re-issued to another patient, even if they are returned unopened.

This is because it is not possible to guarantee the integrity of the product due to storage conditions and the potential for tampering.

Some pharmaceutical products can be unintentionally damaged when exposed to light, heat or moisture, and this can potentially change the efficacy of the product.

How much does medicine waste cost?

Medicine waste can be an expensive drain on resources and difficult to dispose of in an environmentally safe way. The NHS has to pay to get rid of any unused returned medication items.

An estimated £300 million worth of NHS prescriptions are classed as medicine waste each year. Approximately £110 million of the total is returned to pharmacies to be disposed of, whilst £90 million is thought to be stockpiled in people’s homes and £50 million goes on to be disposed of by care homes.

Understandably medication plans change due to inefficacy and intolerable side effects. Unfortunately there are also many instances where medication is wasted for avoidable reasons.

How does medicine end up as waste?

There are numerous reasons why medication products might not be used (or completely used) by the patient that they are issued to, including the following:

    • Non-compliance to medication directions by taking the wrong dose or taking it at irregular intervals. Prescriptions are issued to patients along with directions outlining how the medication should be taken for the optimum health outcome. The issued dosage and instructions are usually formed from evidence based clinical trials. However, all patients are different and there is some potential for changes to directions and dosages to be made.
    • Stopping a course of medication due to side effects or following a personal decision to stop treatment. Patients should contact their doctor to discuss their treatment if they experience intolerable side effects or no longer wish to continue their course.
    • Failure to complete a full course unintentionally (for instance by forgetting to take one or more doses).
    • A change in the health status of the patient. This can result in pre-issued medication no longer being required.
    • The stockpiling of medication through patients requesting repeat prescription items when they are not required.

How to dispose of medicines you don’t need anymore

All medicine waste should be taken to a pharmacy for proper disposal.

You should regularly check through any medication you have at home to make sure that it is in date and has not been damaged. If you come across medication that you no longer require or is unsuitable for use then you need to make sure that it is disposed of properly.

Never dispose of medication down the toilet or sink, as doing so can have a significant impact on the environment. You should also avoid putting unused medication in your general waste, as it could be found by someone that it is not intended for, including children.

What happens if you use out of date medicine?

Using out of date medication can be dangerous and may cause damage to your health. It is also possible that the medication will no longer perform the action it is intended for and this could leave you at risk of becoming seriously ill.

If you are unsure about what medication you should be taking and when you should be taking it then you should speak to your doctor or pharmacist.

Complying with a medication plan is important to maintain your health but it is understandable that it can sometimes be confusing, especially if you have several medications that are all taken under different circumstances.

If you have concerns or questions about your medication plan you can arrange a Medication Use Review (MUR) with your pharmacy. They will be able to answer your queries and talk you through each medication. They can then raise any discrepancies with your doctor who can look to make changes if they feel it would benefit you.

How can I help to reduce medicine waste?

As outlined above it will not always be possible to prevent medication waste. However, as a patient there are certain things you can do to make sure that you are using prescription medications appropriately.

  • Only request medication on repeat prescription when you know that you need it. Remember to keep in mind weekends, bank holidays and any holidays that you plan on taking.
  • Frequently check the dates of any medication that you have at home.
  • Avoid stockpiling medication. Doing so may leave you more at risk of using out-of-date treatment and can be dangerous, especially if it is kept around vulnerable adults or children.
  • Adhere to your medication plan, as directed by your doctor or specialist. Failing to do so can leave you at risk of becoming unwell.
  • Inform your doctor of any changes to your health status, including pregnancy.
  • If you attend a pharmacy to pick up your items, look through your medication bag at what has been issued to you before you leave the pharmacy building.
  • Should you need to attend hospital for any length of time, make sure that you take all your required medication in a clearly labelled bag, ideally with each item in its original packaging.
  • Attend medication reviews when requested to do so by your doctor or specialist.
  • Recycle inhalers. It is not possible to recycle medicines but inhalers can be recycled at participating pharmacies. You can locate a pharmacy which partakes in the scheme through the GSK website.

If you require more information on the correct use of prescription medication speak to your pharmacy.