A total of 961.5 million prescription items were dispensed in the community in England last year, a rise of 3.8% over 2010, but the total net ingredient cost of prescriptions dispensed was £8.8 billion, down 0.3% on the previous year, according to new statistics.

34.9 million more items were prescribed in the community in England in 2011 than during the year before, and the average number of prescription items per head of the population was 18.3, compared to 17.7 items in 2010, says the data, which has been produced by the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) - formerly the NHS Information Centre.

However, the average cost of prescription items per head of population in England fell to £167.22 from £169.13 in 2010, while the average net ingredient cost per prescription item declined from £9.53 to £9.16.

The Centre also notes that the just under 46.7 million prescriptions for antidepressants were dispensed in England last year, which is a 3.9 million-item (9.1%) increase on 2010 and the largest rise in items of any of the 200 sections listed within the British National Formulary (BNF).

Overall, the BNF's Central Nervous System (CNS) chapter, which includes antidepressants and other sections relating to mental health and neurological conditions, also saw the biggest increase during the year in terms of the Formulary's 15 chapters, with 172.4 million items dispensed, up 5.4% - 8.9 million more items than in the previous year.

CNS is also the BNF chapter which shows the greatest cost, at £1.954 million, and with the greatest increase in cost – rising £80.6 million - in 2011, says the HSCIC. Several sections within this chapter saw large rises, including antiepilepsy drugs, prescriptions for which increased by 10.6% or nearly 1.5 million items to 15.5 million items for the year. The number of drugs prescribed for the treatment of dementia also grew strongly, rising 18%, or by 0.3 million items, to reach nearly 1.7 million.

Commenting on the latest figures, HSCIC chief executive Tim Straughan noted that the increase in prescription items dispensed in England last year, equating to an average of about 18 items per year for everyone in the country, may well reflect the evolving demands of an ageing society, prescribing practices and the availability of more treatments.