updated 2/9/2004 6:50:23 PM ET 2004-02-09T23:50:23

Dangerous drugs were prescribed to elderly Americans in about one out of every 12 visits to the doctor in 2000, federal officials said Monday.

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The findings show no improvement since the last study of the problem in 1995, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

“This is a sizable problem — it hasn’t been getting better,” said Diane Makuc, a CDC statistician. “Hopefully these results will encourage health care plans, drug companies, physicians and patients to all look at this issue more carefully.”

Researchers do not know why the wrong drugs are being given. Among the reasons cited in past federal studies are poor medical training for treating seniors, lack of coordination between doctors and pharmacists and failure to give patients proper drug information.

The problem is particularly common among elderly patients because they tend to have more prescriptions and are more apt to develop adverse reactions, according to a 1995 General Accounting Office report.

Women at higher risk
The new study, released Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine, indicated drugs particularly dangerous to senior citizens were prescribed to them about 8 percent of the time — an estimated 16.7 million doctor visits. The numbers were gleaned from patient data from doctors and hospital outpatient departments from 1995 to 2000.

Included on the danger list are some pain relievers, sedatives and antidepressants. Those medicines can cause delirium, falls, blurry vision and over-sedation in the elderly, according to a panel of geriatric medicine and pharmacology experts.

Seniors were more likely to be given an inappropriate drug if a doctor prescribed more than one medication, the CDC said. Women also were twice as likely to be given a dangerous drug than men.

Efforts have been made to prevent doctors from prescribing seniors the wrong drugs. The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services provide drug guidelines for treating nursing home patients, Makuc said.

“A number of things have happened to help inform patients,” she said, “but clearly not enough is being done.”

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