The number of prescriptions dispensed in the community in England has rocketed nearly 60% since 2003, but their cost is up just 15%.

According to fresh data from the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), more than 1.03 billion items were prescribed last year compared to 649.7 million in 2003, having topped the billion-mark for the first time in 2012.

But the net overall ingredient cost (NIC) has only risen 14.8 per cent over the timeframe, standing at £8.63 billion last year compared to £7.51 billion in 2003 and £8.52 billion in 2012.

And the net ingredient cost per prescription item for medicines has fallen year-on-year from £11.56 in 2003 to £8.37 in 2013.

“These figures once again illustrate the fact that the UK gets excellent value for the money that is spent on medicines in the NHS," said the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry's chief executive Stephen Whitehead in an emailed statement.

"In addition, under the new five year voluntary PPRS [Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme], the pharmaceutical industry will help keep NHS expenditure on branded medicines in the scheme flat for two years and keep the growth rate below 2% for a further three years by underwriting any further expenditure by the NHS," he noted.

"It is essential that industry continues to work with the Government and the NHS to ensure that patients have access to the innovative medicines they need," Whitehead stressed.

The data also show that 90% of prescriptions are issued free-of-charge, of which the lion's share - 59.5% - were picked up by patients over the age of 60, accounting for half of the overall NIC. Just 4.7% were dispensed to patients aged nuder 16 or 16-18 but in full time education, taking up 6.8% of the overall cost.

This finding "will help the NHS to understand the provision required for the ageing population in England," said HSCIC chair Kingsley Manning.

Antidepressants' cost up 33.4%

Interestingly, the cost of antidepressant drugs (£282.1 million) has leapt 33.6% since 2012, while actual the number dispensed was up 6.3% at 53.3 million. Also notable, the cost of diabetes drugs dispensed in the community has now hit £793.8 million, up 3.4% on 2012 with a 5.7% rise in the number prescribed.

And delving deeper into the data, the cardiovascular drug atorvastatin was found to have the greatest drop in cost of any drug over the last year, falling £124.2 million to £42.4 million between 2012 and 2013, but it also had the greatest increase in the number of items dispensed, from 12.8 million to 18.3 million in 2013.