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19.02.2021 | Article Open Access

The association of polypharmacy and high-risk drug classes with adverse health outcomes in the Scottish population with type 1 diabetes

Andreas Höhn, Anita Jeyam, Thomas M. Caparrotta, Stuart J. McGurnaghan, Joseph E. O’Reilly, Luke A. K. Blackbourn, Rory J. McCrimmon, Graham P. Leese, John A. McKnight, Brian Kennon, Robert S. Lindsay, Naveed Sattar, Sarah H. Wild, Paul M. McKeigue, Helen M. Colhoun, on behalf of the Scottish Diabetes Research Network (SDRN) Epidemiology Group
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The online version of this article (https://​doi.​org/​10.​1007/​s00125-021-05394-7) contains peer-reviewed but unedited supplementary material.

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The aim of this work was to map the number of prescribed drugs over age, sex and area-based socioeconomic deprivation, and to examine the association between the number of drugs and particular high-risk drug classes with adverse health outcomes among a national cohort of individuals with type 1 diabetes.


Utilising linked healthcare records from the population-based diabetes register of Scotland, we identified 28,245 individuals with a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes on 1 January 2017. For this population, we obtained information on health status, predominantly reflecting diabetes-related complications, and information on the total number of drugs and particular high-risk drug classes prescribed. We then studied the association of these baseline-level features with hospital admissions for falls, diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), and hypoglycaemia or death within the subsequent year using multivariate Cox proportional hazards models.


Not considering insulin and treatment for hypoglycaemia, the mean number of prescribed drugs was 4.00 (SD 4.35). The proportion of individuals being prescribed five or more drugs at baseline consistently increased with age (proportion [95% CI]: 0–19 years 2.04% [1.60, 2.49]; 40–49 years 28.50% [27.08, 29.93]; 80+ years 76.04% [67.73, 84.84]). Controlling for age, sex, area-based socioeconomic deprivation and health status, each additional drug at baseline was associated with an increase in the hazard for hospitalisation for falls, hypoglycaemia and death but not for DKA admissions (HR [95% CI]: falls 1.03 [1.01, 1.06]; DKA 1.01 [1.00, 1.03]; hypoglycaemia 1.05 [1.02, 1.07]; death 1.04 [1.02, 1.06]). We found a number of drug classes to be associated with an increased hazard of one or more of these adverse health outcomes, including antithrombotic/anticoagulant agents, corticosteroids, opioids, antiepileptics, antipsychotics, hypnotics and sedatives, and antidepressants.


Polypharmacy is common among the Scottish population with type 1 diabetes and is strongly patterned by sociodemographic factors. The number of prescribed drugs and the prescription of particular high-risk drug classes are strong markers of an increased risk of adverse health outcomes, including acute complications of diabetes.

Graphical abstract

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