The State of UK Prescriptions 2021

A header image introducing the article.

Prescriptions are one of the types of medical treatment that we may expect to encounter the most throughout our lifetime. Whether for the long term, chronic conditions such as diabetes or asthma, a short term injury or illness, or as part of a contraceptive plan, prescription medications can effectively treat a wide range of health conditions.

However, there’s much debate over how we use prescriptions as a nation, with the topic frequently discussed in the press. With discussions around the over-prescribing of medications and rising prescription costs currently a hot topic, any changes to the way we use prescriptions will have an effect on millions of people across the country.

With this in mind, we wanted to take a look at just how prescription medications are used in the UK and how things could change further over the years to come.

Our report looks at the most prescribed medication over the last five years across all regions in the UK, the future prediction on single item prescription costs as well as the views of the British public on prescriptions and medication.

The Levels of Prescribed Medication Over the Last Five Years

Using NHS digital data, we’ve analysed the type and the number of different medications prescribed across the UK, to reveal how many prescriptions are given both per region and across the UK as a whole.

Looking at the total number of prescriptions given in the UK over the last five years, there has been a considerable decrease as the years have progressed. In 2015, around 223,752,726 prescriptions were given, with this number increasing by just over 715,000 for 2016. However, since this peak, prescriptions have declined year on year, until reaching their minimum of 208,299,993 in 2020.

Based on figures so far for 2021, it’s likely that this year will be lower again still, at just under 207,000,000 prescriptions given, but only time will tell.

Overall, the most prescribed medication from 2015 up until 2020 was Colecalciferol, a form of Vitamin D used in the prevention and treatment of Vitamin D deficiency conditions. In total, from 2015 to 2021 Colecalciferol has been prescribed 27,098,713 times.

The table below shows the top 5 prescribed medications in totality from the years 2015 up until August 2021.

An infographic highlighting the levels of prescriptions over the last five years.


Which Prescribed Medications are the Most Prevalent in Different Regions Across the UK?


Our analysis has also uncovered which medication is the most frequently prescribed, for each region across the UK. While Colecalciferol (Vitamin D) is the most frequently prescribed medication for all regions, the remaining four prescriptions in the top five for each region vary.

A map showing the most prevelant prescriptions in each part of the UK.

After Colecalficerol (Vitamin D), the second most prescribed medication in the North West is Co-codamol (Codeine phosphate/paracetamol), with the South West receiving Wound Management and Other Dressings in second place for their region. The other remaining UK regions all see ‘Other Appliances’ such as insulin needles, pessaries, limb protectors and inhaler chambers as their second most frequent prescription.

Pain relief (Co-codamol (Codeine phosphate/paracetamol) is the third most prescribed medication in the East of England, the Midlands, North East and Yorkshire and the South East. Other Appliances (as stated above) are the third most prevalent medication in the North West and the South West.

For those in London, the third most prescribed drug is Metformin hydrochloride, which is taken to control high blood sugar in patients with type 2 diabetes.

How Much Have Prescription Costs Risen in the Last 10 Years and How Much Are They Predicted to Rise?

From 1st April 2021, the cost for NHS prescriptions in England rose to £9.35 per prescription item, an increase of 2.19% from the 2020 prescription cost. Back in 2011, figures show that the average prescription cost for a single item was £7.40. As a result, this means that in a time span of ten years, the cost of a prescription has risen by 26.4% (a £1.95 increase per single item).

The chart below shows the average cost per single prescribed item for each year since 2011, where prescriptions charges have risen, on average, by 2.37% each year. According to this average increase, we can predict that by 2035, the average prescription charge for a single item could be £12.98.

A graph showing the recent increases in prescription costs, and forecasting the future costs.


The Rise of the Electronic Prescription Service (EPS)


The Electronic Prescription Service (EPS) sends electronic prescriptions from GP practices to your nominated pharmacy, eliminating the need to wait for prescriptions to be printed and taken to your local pharmacy.

Due to this quick turnaround time, your NHS prescription delivery can be with you within 48 hours; as a result, electronic prescriptions have been growing rapidly over recent years, and particularly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The chart below shows the number of EPS items within the total number of prescribed items since February 2020:

A graph showing how many prescriptions are sent electronically to pharmacies.

What are the UK’s Views on Prescriptions?


We surveyed 2,000 people to uncover the UK’s views on prescriptions. 53% of survey respondents think that “as a nation, we are prescribed too much medication”. However, on an individual level, 49% of respondents disagreed with the statement that “I am prescribed too much medication”.

An infographic discussing the UK's views on prescriptions.

We also asked respondents how they feel about paying for prescriptions. In terms of prescription charges, 39% agreed with the statement “I would be willing to pay for a private prescription from a Pharmacist Independent Prescriber”.

We also asked respondents to select how much they would be willing to pay for one such private prescription.

Almost 1 in 10 (9%) of those surveyed said they’d be willing to pay up to £5, with the majority (15%) saying they’d be willing to pay between £6 - £10, including the current NHS prescription cost of £9.35 for a single item.

A further 1 in 10 (9%) said they’d be willing to pay between £11 - £15, 5% said they would be willing to pay between £16 - £20 and only 0.1% said they would be willing to pay over £21 for a private prescription.

Methodology

NHS England Prescription Data was used for prescription data in the UK. Annual prescription costs were collated from Gov.uk.

Electronic Prescriptions items and total prescribed items were sources from Pharmdata.

The survey was conducted by Censuswide with 2,000 general consumers (nat rep) aged 18+ between 03.11.21 to 05.11.21.

Censuswide abide by and employ members of the Market Research Society which is based on the ESOMAR principles.

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