Trends and variation in prescribing of low-priority treatments identified by NHS England: a cross-sectional study and interactive data tool in English primary care
Alex J Walker, Helen J Curtis, Seb Bacon, Richard Croker, Ben Goldacre
NHS England recently announced a consultation seeking to discourage the use of treatments it considers to be low-value. We set out to produce an interactive data resource to show savings in each NHS general practice and to assess the current use of these treatments, their change in use over time, and the extent and reasons for variation in such prescribing. Design: Cross-sectional analysis. Setting:English primary care. Participants: English general practices. Main outcome measures: We determined the cost per 1000 patients for prescribing of each of 18 treatments identified by NHS England for each month from July 2012 to June 2017, and also aggregated over the most recent year to assess total cost and variation among practices. We used mixed effects linear regression to determine factors associated with cost of prescribing. Results: Spend on low-value treatments was £153.5 m in the last year, across 5.8 m prescriptions (mean, £26 per prescription). Among individual treatments, liothyronine had the highest prescribing cost at £29.6 m, followed by trimipramine (£20.2 m). Over time, the overall total number of low-value prescriptions decreased, but the cost increased, although this varied greatly between treatments. Three treatment areas increased in cost and two increased in volume, all others reduced in cost and volume. Annual practice level spending varied widely (median, £2262 per thousand patients; interquartile range £1439 to £3298). Proportion of patients over 65 was strongly associated with low-value prescribing, as was Clinical Commissioning Group. Our interactive data tool was deployed to OpenPrescribing.net where monthly updated figures and graphs can be viewed. Conclusions: Prescribing of low-value treatments is extensive but varies widely by treatment, geographic area and individual practice. Despite a fall in prescription numbers, the overall cost of prescribing for low-value items has risen. Prescribing behaviour is clustered by Clinical Commissioning Group, which may represent variation in the optimisation efficiency of medicines, or in some cases access inequality.