The NHS in England spent £8.81 billion on prescription drugs supplied through primary care last year, down 0.1% from £8.83 billion in 2010, official figures show.

Last year, 961.5 million prescription items were supplied to NHS primary care patients in England, at a net ingredient cost per item of £9.16 compared to £9.52 in 2010, according to the latest annual Prescription Cost Analysis published by the NHS Information Centre.

Item growth for the year was 3.8%, down from 4.5% in 2010, 5.2% in 2009 and 5.8% in 2008.

A major reason for these lower figures is patent expiries, and this is due to continue into the current year, particularly among central nervous system (CNS) treatments, which is the top-spending therapy area for the NHS, costing £1.95 billion last year, a rise of 4% over 2010's £1.87 billion. Eli Lilly's antipsychotic Zyprexa (olanzapine), on which NHS England spent £120.7 million last year, lost its patent protection in 2011, and the patents on two more high-priced drugs in this class - AstraZeneca's Seroquel (quetiapine) and Pfizer/Eisai's Aricept (donepezil), which together cost the Service £170 million in 2011 - expired in early 2012.

Particularly big savings are expected when Pfizer's Lipitor (atorvastatin) - on which the NHS in England spent £310.8 million in 2011, up £5 million on 2010's total - loses its patent protection in May.

The biggest fall in costs last year (by British National Formulary [BNF] chapter) were: - 11% in costs for cardiovascular system treatments, from £1.52 billion to £1.35 billion; and - gastrointestinal system drugs, which dropped 7% from £463.1 million to £428.7 million.

- Meantime, the Department Health has reported that hospital referrals by GPs fell 1% during the year to February 2012 compared with the year before. In February 2011, such referrals had shown an annual rise of 2.5%.

The volume of first outpatient attendances, on a year-to-date (YTD) basis, is up 0.9% for the period, while elective growth YTD is is currently 3.8% compared with 3.4% last year, and non-elective admissions have decreased by 1.2% compared to the same period last year.