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What is polypharmacy? A systematic review of definitions

dianagosalvez Diana Gosálvez Prados last modified 19/10/2017 13:04

Multimorbidity and the associated use of multiple medicines (polypharmacy), is common in the older population. Despite this, there is no consensus definition for polypharmacy. A systematic review was conducted to identify and summarise polypharmacy definitions in existing literature.

Masnoon N, Shakib S, Kalisch-Ellett L, Caughey GE. What is polypharmacy? A systematic review of definitions. BMC Geriatrics. 2017. Available at: https://bmcgeriatr.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12877-017-0621-2




The reporting of this systematic review conforms to the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) checklist. MEDLINE (Ovid), EMBASE and Cochrane were systematically searched, as well as grey literature, to identify articles which defined the term polypharmacy (without any limits on the types of definitions) and were in English, published between 1st January 2000 and 30th May 2016. Definitions were categorised as i. numerical only (using the number of medications to define polypharmacy), ii. numerical with an associated duration of therapy or healthcare setting (such as during hospital stay) or iii. Descriptive (using a brief description to define polypharmacy).


A total of 1156 articles were identified and 110 articles met the inclusion criteria. Articles not only defined polypharmacy but associated terms such as minor and major polypharmacy. As a result, a total of 138 definitions of polypharmacy and associated terms were obtained. There were 111 numerical only definitions (80.4% of all definitions), 15 numerical definitions which incorporated a duration of therapy or healthcare setting (10.9%) and 12 descriptive definitions (8.7%). The most commonly reported definition of polypharmacy was the numerical definition of five or more medications daily (n = 51, 46.4% of articles), with definitions ranging from two or more to 11 or more medicines. Only 6.4% of articles classified the distinction between appropriate and inappropriate polypharmacy, using descriptive definitions to make this distinction.


Polypharmacy definitions were variable. Numerical definitions of polypharmacy did not account for specific comorbidities present and make it difficult to assess safety and appropriateness of therapy in the clinical setting.

Masnoon N, Shakib S, Kalisch-Ellett L, Caughey GE.