Pandemic Drives Drop in Prescription Drugs for Children

Heidi Splete

July 20, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

The amount of prescription drugs given to children in the United States decreased by 27.1% between April and December 2020, compared with the same period in 2019, based on data from a national database.

Overall, dispensing of prescription drugs to all patients in the United States decreased in the wake of COVID-19 but has since rebounded, wrote Kao-Ping Chua, MD, of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and colleagues. "However, whether these same trends occurred for children is unknown."

In a study published in Pediatrics, the researchers used the IQVIA National Prescription Audit, a database that contains monthly dispensing details from 92% of retail pharmacies in the United States. They compared changes in the dispensing of prescriptions with children aged 0-19 years during 2018-2020.

In the April 2020–December 2020 time period, prescriptions for children aged 1-2 years, 3-9 years, and 10-19 years decreased by 48.7%, 40.6%, and 16.8%, respectively, compared with the same time period in 2019.

The overall dispensing total for children from April 2020 to December 2020 was 160,630,406, representing a 27.1% reduction, compared with the 220,284,613 total from April 2019 to December 2019.

By drug class, prescriptions for antibiotics, ADHD medications, and antidepressants decreased by 55.6%, 11.8%, and 0.1%, respectively, in comparing the two time periods. Prescriptions for drug classes used typically for acute infections decreased by 51.3%, and those used for chronic diseases decreased by 17.4%.

From January 2018 to February 2020, a median of 25,744,758 prescriptions were dispensed to children aged 0-19 years each month. The total prescriptions decreased from 25,684,219 in March 2020 to 16,742,568 in April 2020, increased to 19,657,289 in October 2020, and decreased again to 15,821,914 during December 2020.

In a subgroup analysis, the decline in prescriptions was greater in children aged 0-9 years, compared with those aged 10-19 years. "Because young children have a higher rate of antibiotic use than older children, declines in antibiotic dispensing might affect overall dispensing totals to a greater degree in young children," the researchers said.

The study findings were limited by several factors including the lack of information on clinical outcomes, disease severity, and details of new versus ongoing prescriptions, as well as the possible heterogeneity in indications within drug classes, and lack of data from small pharmacies, the researchers noted. However, the results were strengthened by the use of a national all-payer database that including most prescriptions dispensed in the United States, and the use of objective measurements of prescribing practices rather than self-reports.

Despite concerns for the decreased dispensing of chronic disease drugs to children during the pandemic, "declines in dispensing of infection-related drugs, such as antitussives and antibiotics, may be welcome developments," the researchers said. "These declines reveal that substantial reductions in prescribing of these drugs are possible," and ongoing monitoring is needed to follow whether the reductions continue long term.

COVID Precautions Contributed to Prescription Declines

The mask-wearing and social distancing imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to reduced rates of other illnesses, Karalyn Kinsella, MD, a pediatrician in private practice in Cheshire, Conn., said in an interview.

"On the surface, with masks and social isolation, we have seen a drastic reduction in infectious disease," she said. Fewer infections mean a reduced need for prescriptions to treat them. However, Kinsella expects the situation to change as more venues and activities open. "I expect that, as things continue to open, we will continue to see more infectious disease," which will likely lead to more prescription drug use.

Part of the study data were provided through the IQVIA Institute's Human Data Science Research Collaborative. Lead author Chua was supported by a career development award from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, but had no financial conflicts to disclose. Kinsella had no financial conflicts to disclose, but serves as a member of the Pediatric News editorial advisory board.

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