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Many prescriptions written for off-label drug treatments

Filed April 18th, 2012 Laurie

Prescription drugs are often given to patients for indications which they’re not approved to treat but the practice remains common.

New research from Canada suggests this practice, while it’s not illegal, does put more patients at risk for unexpected injuries or possibly death from side effects of the drug. Prescription drugs taken for off-label indications likely have not been tested scientifically for safety in treating some diseases or conditions. A doctor will prescribe a drug for these indications possibly based on something he/she read of ongoing research or through their network of contacts.

This study from McGill University in Montreal used the records compiled by a Quebec province-based database on prescription drugs. Researchers at the leading medical research school compiled data for publication online at Archives of Internal Medicine. According to a report on the study, “A total of 113 primary care physicians wrote 253,347 electronic prescriptions for 50,823 patients from January 2005 through December 2009.”

At least 11 percent of those prescriptions were written for off-label indications. Most of that 11 percent (79 percent) were written to patients with little or no scientific backing for writing the prescription with no guarantees of safety or effectiveness.

Most commonly prescribed for off-label indications were drugs used to treat central nervous system disorders, “anti-infective” drugs and ear, nose, and throat medicines. Drugs, according to the study, with only one or two approved indications are more likely to be prescribed for another use by a physician while drugs with more indications are often given as directed.

Older drugs, those first approved for use before 1981, are more likely to be prescribed for off-label treatments than drugs approved after 1995, the study found.

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