The number of prescription items dispensed in the community per year topped one billion for the first time in 2012 – equating to 2.7million a day, or over 1,900 a minute, according to a report bythe Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC). 

The report also shows that the 1000.5 million items dispensed in England in 2012 represents a rise of almost two thirds (62.2 per cent, or 383.5 million) compared to a decade ago. Prescription items, which relate to individual prescription medicines (eg a course of tablets, cream or inhaler), listed on a single prescription form, have also risen per head of the population; from 12.4 in 2002 to 18.7 in 2012. 

While the report shows a year-on-year rise in items, it also shows a fall in total net cost of items to the NHS for the second year running. This figure stood at £8.5 billion in 2012, which is similar to the total net cost in 2009. In 2002 this figure was £6.8 billion. 

The net cost per item fell from £11.10 in 2002 to £8.50 in 2012 and has been falling every year since 2004. Net cost per head of the population increased from £137.80 in 2002 to £159.33 in 2012 and has fluctuated in the intervening years - peaking at £167.80 in 2010.

A larger and aging population will be a part of the reason for the rise in the items, while the fall in cost is partly because patents have expired for several leading medicines and generic alternatives have become available. For example, the net cost of the cardiovascular drug Atorvastatin fell by £144.3 million between 2011 and 2012, from £310.9 million to £166.6 million.

A significant number of prescription items and cost is for preventing or managing long-term conditions, according to the report; Prescriptions dispensed in the community; England 2002 – 2012, which also shows that in 2012:

  • Prescriptions to treat diabetes accounted for the biggest net cost by treatment area for the sixth year running at £767.9 million, a 2.2 per cent (£16.2 million) rise on 2011. In total, 42.2 million items were dispensed for diabetes, a 5.4 per cent (2.2 million items) increase on 2011.
  • There was a notable increase in both the net cost and items of antibiotics (antibacterial medicines) compared to the previous year. Net cost increased by 14.8 per cent (£25.1 million) to reach £195.5 million, while items increased by 6.1 per cent (2.5 million) to reach 43.3 million.
  • Nine out of 10 prescription items were dispensed free of charge to the patient according to new data. Considering these free items:
    • About 60 per cent were for older people (aged 60 and over) and about five per cent were for young people (under 16 or aged 16-18 and in full-time education). 
    • Other than certain items that are free to all (such as contraceptives), the remainder were for people in receipt of benefits, pregnant women and those with certain medical conditions.     
HSCIC chair Kingsley Manning said: “For the first time, one billion prescription medicines have been dispensed to our communities in just one year. This figure reflects a continuing upward trend in prescription numbers, which is in contrast to a recent fall in total net cost. 

“Total costs have fallen for the second year running and are now at 2009 levels. Our report shows that while people on average now receive more prescription items, the cost of these per head has dropped in the last two years. 

“Today's report does therefore show both the way in which the volume of prescriptions required from the NHS is moving, and that the NHS has been able to manage the cost impact.”