43% of men and 50% of women in England have told a government survey that they had taken at least one prescribed medicine in the last week, and 22% of men and 24% of women reported that they had taken at least three prescribed drugs during the period.

The proportion of those taking at least one such medicine in the period increases more sharply in men than in women, although more young women than young men had taken at least one prescribed drug during the past week, and the proportion of people doing so is also greater among those on lower incomes, according to the latest annual Health Survey for England, conducted on behalf of the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC).

The Survey heard that the most frequently-prescribed medicine classes in 2013 were lipid-lowering medicines (16% of men and 12% of women), antihypertensive medicines (14% and 15% respectively) and, for women, analgesics and/or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) (12%). Men were considerably more likely than women to report taking lipid-lowering and anti-platelet medicine, while women were more likely to report taking analgesics and antidepressants.

Prescribing medicines is the most common intervention provided to patients by the NHS and is the Service’s second-highest area of spending, after staff costs. England’s drugs bill exceeded £15 billion in 2013, including costs in hospitals, and with over 1 billion prescription items dispensed in the community during the year.

Over 307 million prescriptions (30% of the total last year) were dispensed for cardiovascular disease, and more than 65 million of these were for hypertension, heart failure or lipid-lowerers. Over 65 million prescriptions were dispensed for analgesics, and more than 50 million each for antidepressants and proton pump inhibitors.

The most commonly-prescribed single medicine in England in primary care during 2013 was the lipid-lowerer simvastatin, with 40 million prescriptions, followed by aspirin, with 31 million, the Survey reports.

Prescriptions to treat diabetes accounted for the largest net ingredient cost (NIC) by treatment area for the sixth consecutive year in primary care, with a cost in 2013 of £794 million. Prescribing for diabetes accounted for 4.4% of total items and 9.5% of the total cost of prescribing, and the next five largest NICs by treatment areas during the year were: corticosteroids for respiratory disease; painkillers, anti-epilepsy drugs; bronchodilators for respiratory disease; and antidepressants.

On average, 18.7 prescription items were dispensed per head of population in England last year. 90% of community prescriptions were dispensed free to the patient, of which 60% were for people aged 60 and over and about 5% to young people.

Commenting on the Survey, Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) chair Maureen Baker said: “prescribing is a core skill for GPs, and patients can be assured that their family doctor will prescribe medication only when necessary and where other alternatives have been explored. GPs also have to adhere to strict and robust monitoring systems.”

- The 2013 edition is the 23rd annual Health Survey for England, although it is the first study of nationally-representative samples of people living in the community to report on the use of prescribed medicines, the HSCIC reports.