Road Hazards: High-Risk Medications

Are you taking a high-risk medication? Here Is what you should know

Updated on: June 7, 2018

Originally posted on: November 30, 2015
Senior Director of Medicare Solutions Ms. Mahon specializes in providing seniors with the resources they need to make more informed coverage decisions. Topics include how to use star ratings.

As a pharmacist, I know the life-saving potential of every medication on the market.  But even the safest and most effective medications have some effect on your body beyond just its intended purpose. Some medications come with side effects, limited effectiveness, and other concerns may make a drug more risky than beneficial for an individual. This risk can be made worse by combining certain medicines together.

A listing called the Beers Criteria (named for the scientist who developed it) identifies these medications. They are known as high-risk medications (HRMs), potentially inappropriate medications (PIMs), or drugs to avoid in the elderly (DAEs). Together, these drugs cause an estimated $877 million worth of preventable medical problems each year.

There are several reasons why you may be prescribed a HRM:

  • You may have multiple doctors prescribing medications that are safe on their own, but have increased risks when combined with other medications.
  • You may have been prescribed the medication years ago and are continuing use past a safe stage.
  • Your doctor may have determined that the benefits outweigh the risks for you and other patients.
  • Safer medications may be more costly or less available.
  • There may not be effective alternatives available.


How Can I Avoid Potentially High-Risk Medications?

Drug safety starts with awareness. Keep track of all medications you’re taking and make sure your doctor has access to the list before he/she prescribes you any new medicines. Be willing to ask questions, and don’t be afraid to say something if you’re unhappy with a prescribing decision. If you’re helping a loved one manage his/her prescriptions, be sure to keep up-to-date on the medications and help avoid the use of any potentially risky new medicines.

Prescription benefit managers (PBMs) and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) are working to help educate doctors about the risks of certain drugs for seniors. Many formularies (lists of covered drugs), such as those in all Express Scripts Medicare plans, now have built-in warning systems to alert doctors and pharmacists of potential concerns. It’s important to always use your prescription benefit card — even when buying medications that aren’t covered by your plan or are available over the counter. By doing so, potential drug interactions can be tracked and pharmacists can help prevent harm to the patient.


What Should I Do if I’m Prescribed a HRM?

First, you should talk with your doctor or pharmacist about potential alternatives. If it’s deemed that the HRM is still your best option, take note of the possible risks and side effects. If you feel that you’re experiencing any issues, don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor to see if there’s another alternative for you.

While these drugs could pose an increased risk at times, they can and do help people. By being proactive and aware of potential benefits and risks of each medicine, you can make an informed decision with your doctor about whether a medication is right for you.