The over-prescribing of medicines in Europe is becoming "chronic," especially among elderly patients, a leading health policy expert has claimed. 

A study by Salzburg Medical University has found that prescriptions issued to patients with an average age of 82 were unnecessary in 36% of cases, while for 30% the drugs they were being given were inappropriate, according to Guenther Leiner, president of leading health policy conference the European Health Forum Gastein (EHFG).

Unnecessary medical treatments are a Europe-wide issue which needs to be confronted head-on, said Professor Leiner, speaking ahead of the annual EHFG conference, to be held in Bad Hofgastein, Austria, on October 5-8.

It "bordered on the absurd" that, against the current debates everywhere in Europe on the limits of affordable health services, there is also "blatant and increasing over-treatment in hospitals," said Prof Leiner. The growing number of unnecessary operations is "especially alarming" and these have "an obvious economic basis," he added, suggesting that it was hard to imagine that the enormous differences across Europe in the number of hip and knee replacements, for example, could be explained "on purely clinical grounds."

"This trend leads to a number of problems, including a difficult ethical situation for many doctors,” he added.

This year's EHGF will examine strategies for relieving pressure on health budgets and unnecessary prescribing and surgery, including innovation, personalised medicine, e-health and health technology assessment (HTA), said Prof Leiner. The European Commission, which is a key partner of the Forum, will focus on Europe's potential for social innovation in health, patients' access to their personal health data and the European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing.

"Many health problems go beyond the borders of individual countries and need to be solved through international co-operation and collaboration," said Paola Testori-Goggi, director general for health and consumers at the European Commission. "We therefore wish to see how innovation can help people maximise their chances of ageing in good health," she added.

October's EHFG will be looking at why three out of four Europeans still die of preventable, lifestyle-related diseases, despite the massive advances in medical science. Cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes and cancer account for 77% of the illnesses burdening the 53 countries of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Region Europe, and are the cause of 86% of all deaths. Following the conclusions of the United Nations (UN) High-Level Summit on Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs), which takes place September 19-20 in New York, developments in NCDs will feature prominently on the October Forum's agenda, say the organisers.