The number of prescriptions made outside hospitals in England has risen almost 70 per cent in a decade, according to the NHS Information Centre.
While in 2000 there were 552 million items prescribed, that rose to 927 million in 2010.
Drugs to counter cardiovascular disease, such as statins which lower cholesterol and ACE inhibitors which lower blood pressure, are now the most frequently prescribed.
Meanwhile, the drugs bill to tackle diabetes has risen rapidly. Experts say this is due both to a rise in the numbers of people with the disease – curreently estimated at about 2.5 million – and the fact a number of expensive new treatments have come on to the market.
Overall, the prescription drugs bill has risen 58 per cent between 2000 and 2010, from £5.59 billion to £8.83 billion – close to 10 per cent of the entire NHS budget.
The number of prescriptions per person has also risen sharply, from 11.2 in 2000 to 17.8 in 2010, which translates to an increase in the average cost per head from £113 to £169.
The Patients’ Association believes doctors are doling out drugs too easily, although others emphasise that the population is ageing – and older people need more drugs to keep them healthy.
Katherine Murphy, Chief Executive of the Patients’ Association said: “If patients are getting access to more of the medicines they need, in particular more specifically tailored medicines, we would welcome this move.
“However, we are concerned that with consultation times being so short, rather than being able to tackle the problems patients have, doctors may be simply prescribing medicines.”
The new figures were released a day after the Family Doctor Association warned that four in five GPs were prescribing drugs to patients that they suspected were addicted to them.
Many are also concerned about medicalising large sections of the population: some seven million now take statins alone.
However, Prof David Taylor of the School of Pharmacy at London University, defended the widespread use of preventative medicines for chronic diseases.
He said: “In my view it’s deeply desirable to use these drugs.”
Drugs like ACE inhibitors had transformed the treatment of heart failure, he said, while statins were proven to lower the risk of cardiac events.
He said the numbers of prescriptions had risen in part due to the ageing population, in part due to greater prevalence of lifestyle diseases, and in part due to smarter ways of prescribing that resulted in smaller doses of more drugs.
He also pointed out that the average cost of individual drugs was going down as more were going ‘off-patent’. That is borne out by the NHS figures, which show the cost per prescription has dropped from £10.12 in 2000 to £9.53 in 2010.
But Mike Holden, chief executive of the National Pharmacy Association, said there was “a huge amount of waste” in prescribing.
“Up to half of all medicines for long term conditions are not taken as intended by the prescriber,” he said.
“There is no doubt that much more value for patients and the tax payer could be extracted from this massive investment by supporting more effective medicines use.”
Paul Burstow, the Care Services Minister, said: “The big rise in prescribing revealed today largely reflects the impact of a growing and ageing population, as well as an increase in the prescribing of preventative medicines, such as low cost statins, for cardiovascular diseases.”