Skip Navigation
Search site

This is our old website. Most information can now be found on our new NHS Digital website. Let us know what you think.

More than 1 billion prescription items dispensed in a year - or 1,900 a minute

July 30, 2013: ยท Number rising each year in England, but net cost down to 2009 levels

*HSCIC must be quoted as the source of these figures

The number of prescription items dispensed in the community per year topped one billion for the first time in 2012 - equating to 2.7million a day5, or over 1,900 a minute.

Today's report from the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) also shows that the 1000.5 million items dispensed in England in 2012 represents a rise of almost two thirds (62.2 per cent, or 383.5 million) compared to a decade ago.

Prescription items, which relate to individual prescription medicines (e.g. a course of tablets, cream or inhaler) listed on a single prescription form, have also risen per head of the population; from 12.4 in 2002 to 18.7 in 2012.

While today's report shows a year-on-year rise in items, it also shows a fall in total net cost of items to the NHS for the second year running. This figure stood at £8.5 billion in 2012, which is similar to the total net cost in 2009. In 2002 this figure was £6.8 billion.

The net cost per item fell from £11.10 in 2002 to £8.50 in 2012 and has been falling every year since 2004. Net cost per head of the population increased from £137.80 in 2002 to £159.33 in 2012 and has fluctuated in the intervening years - peaking at £167.80 in 2010.

A larger and aging population will be a part of the reason for the rise in the items, while the fall in cost is partly because patents have expired for several leading medicines and generic7 alternatives have become available. For example the net cost of the cardiovascular drug Atorvastatin fell by £144.3 million between 2011 and 2012, from £310.9 million to £166.6 million.

A significant proportion of prescription items and cost is for preventing or managing long term conditions according to the report; Prescriptions dispensed in the community; England 2002 - 2012, whichalso shows that in 2012:

  • Prescriptions to treat diabetes accounted for the biggest net cost by treatment area for the sixth year running at £767.9 million, a 2.2 per cent (£16.2 million) rise on 2011. In total, 42.2 million items were dispensed for diabetes, a 5.4 per cent (2.2 million items) increase on 2011.
  • There was a notable increase in both the net cost and items of antibiotics (antibacterial medicines) compared to the previous year. Net cost increased by 14.8 per cent (£25.1 million) to reach £195.5 million, while items increased by 6.1 per cent (2.5 million) to reach 43.3 million.
  • Nine out of 10 prescription items were dispensed free of charge to the patient according to new data. Considering these free items:

- About 60 per cent were for older people (aged 60 and over) and about five per cent were for young people (under 16 or aged 16-18 and in full-time education).

- Other than certain items that are free to all (such as contraceptives), the remainder were for people in receipt of benefits, pregnant women and those with certain medical conditions.

HSCIC chair Kingsley Manning said: "For the first time, one billion prescription medicines have been dispensed to our communities in just one year. This figure reflects a continuing upward trend in prescription numbers, which is in contrast to a recent fall in total net cost. Total costs have fallen for the second year running and are now at 2009 levels. Our report shows that while people on average now receive more prescription items, the cost of these per head has dropped in the last two years.

"Today's report does therefore show both the way in which the volume of prescriptions required from the NHS is moving, and that the NHS has been able to manage the cost impact."

The report can be accessed at:


Notes to editors

  1. The Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) was established on April 1 2013 as an Executive Non Departmental Public Body (ENDPB). It is England's trusted data source, delivering high quality information and IT systems to drive better patient services, care and outcomes. Its work includes publishing more than 130 statistical publications annually; providing a range of specialist data services; managing informatics projects and programmes and developing and assuring national systems against appropriate contractual, clinical safety and information standards.
  2. This bulletin covers all prescriptions that were dispensed in England by community pharmacists, appliance contractors and dispensing doctors. The majority of prescriptions dispensed are written by GPs but prescriptions written by dentists, nurses, pharmacists and prescriptions written in hospital or a Community Health Trust are also included, provided they were dispensed by a community pharmacist.
  3. The bulletin shows the headline cost (net ingredient cost) of medicines before the deduction of discount or charges paid and therefore does not represent the actual cost to the NHS. Net ingredient cost figures given here are not adjusted for inflation. Standard adjustments for inflation are not considered appropriate as drug prices are subject to controls under the Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme and to other central controls.
  4. Definitions

    Prescription Item
    Prescribers write prescriptions on a prescription form. Each single item written on the form is counted as a prescription item.

    Items per head of populationThis bulletin uses mid-year resident population estimates based on the 2011 Census.
  5. Days relate to the full 365 day calendar year.
  6. Figures for the average net ingredient cost per head of the population have been rounded to the nearest pound.
  7. A generic medicine is one which is marketed under an internationally approved name, rather than a brand name. For example, Ibuprofen is the generic name of the medicine that also has several branded versions.
  8. For media enquiries or interview requests please contact the press office on 0845 257 6990 or
Close iCM Form