Dominick Bailey sat at his computer, scrutinizing the medication lists of patients in the geriatric unit.
A doctor had prescribed blood pressure medication for a 99-year-old woman at a dose that could cause her to faint or fall. An 84-year-old woman hospitalized for knee surgery was taking several drugs that were not meant for older patients because of their severe potential side effects.
And then there was 74-year-old Lola Cal. She had a long history of health problems, including high blood pressure and respiratory disease. She was in the hospital with pneumonia and had difficulty breathing. Her medical records showed she was on 36 medications.
"This is actually a little bit alarming," said Bailey, a pharmacist.
He was concerned about the sheer number of drugs but even more worried that several of them — including ones to treat insomnia and pain — could suppress Cal's breathing.
An increasing number of elderly patients nationwide are on multiple medications to treat chronic diseases, raising their chances of dangerous drug interactions and serious side effects. Often the drugs are prescribed by different specialists who don't communicate with each other. If those patients are hospitalized, doctors making the rounds add to the list — and some of the drugs they prescribe may be unnecessary or unsuitable.
"This is America's other drug problem — polypharmacy," said Maristela Garcia, director of the inpatient geriatric unit at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, Calif. "And the problem is huge."