Off-label Abuse of Antipsychotics

Kaiser Health News blog in collaboration with The Washington Post had a great article on the use and abuse of atypical antipsychotics.  The skyrocketing increase in the off-label use alarms medical experts, policymakers and patient advocates.  "Until the past decade these 11 drugs, most approved in the 1990s, had been reserved for the approximately 3 percent of Americans with the most disabling mental illnesses, chiefly schizophrenia and bipolar disorder; more recently a few have been approved to treat severe depression."

But these days atypical antipsychotics such as Seroquel, Zyprexa and Abilify are being prescribed to treat a myriad of conditions for which they have not been approved, including anxiety, attention-deficit disorder, sleep difficulties, behavioral problems in toddlers and dementia. These new drugs account for more than 90 percent of the market and have eclipsed an older generation of antipsychotics. Two reports found that children in foster care, some less than a year old, are taking more psychotropic drugs than other children, including those with the severest forms of mental illness.

In 2010 antipsychotic drugs racked up more than $16 billion in sales. For the past three years they have ranked near or at the top of the best-selling classes of drugs, outstripping antidepressants.  A study published last year found that off-label antipsychotic prescriptions doubled between 1995 and 2008, from 4.4 million to 9 million. And a recent report by pharmacy benefits manager Medco estimated that the prevalence of the drugs' use among adults ballooned more than 169 percent between 2001 and 2010.

"Antipsychotics are overused, overpriced and oversold," said Allen Frances, former chair of psychiatry at Duke University School of Medicine, who headed the task force that wrote the DSM-IV, psychiatry's diagnostic bible.   Frances said the drugs, which are designed to calm patients and to moderate the hallucinations and delusions of psychosis, are being used "promiscuously, recklessly," often to control behavior and with little regard for their serious side effects. These include major, rapid weight gain -- 40 pounds is not uncommon -- Type 2 diabetes, breast development in boys, irreversible facial tics and, among the elderly, an increased risk of death.

"Wayne Blackmon, a psychiatrist and lawyer who teaches at George Washington University Law School, said he commonly sees patients taking more than one antipsychotic, which raises the risk of side effects. Blackmon regards them as the "drugs du jour," too often prescribed for "problems of living. Somehow doctors have gotten it into their heads that this is an acceptable use." Physicians, he said, have a financial incentive to prescribe drugs, widely regarded as a much quicker fix than a time-intensive evaluation and nondrug treatments such as behavior therapy, which might not be covered by insurance."

"Since 2005, antipsychotics have carried a black-box warning, the strongest possible, cautioning against their use in elderly patients with dementia, because the drugs increase the risk of death. In 2008 the Food and Drug Administration reiterated its earlier warning, noting that "antipsychotics are not indicated for the treatment of dementia-related psychosis." But experts say such use remains widespread."

A 2011 report by the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services found that in a six-month period in 2007, 14 percent of nursing home residents were given antipsychotics. "The primary reason is that there's not enough staff," said Toby S. Edelman, senior policy attorney for the Center for Medicare Advocacy, a Washington-based nonprofit group, who recently testified about the problem before the Senate Special Committee on Aging. "If you can't tie people up, you give 'em a drug" she said, referring to restrictions on the use of physical restraints in nursing homes.

 

 

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