Doctors could be able to electronically calculate the risk before medicines are prescribed to the elderly, saving lives, if a new system being tested in New Zealand proves successful.
Eighty-thousand New Zealanders are involved in a new Otago University study to reduce over-medication harm.
Side effects from medications cause around 15 per cent of hospitalisations among the elderly and overseas studies suggest one in five prescriptions may be inappropriate.
"It's very hard when each drug has 10 side effects and somebody's on 20 medications to work out whether they're possible side effects from which drug," said Dr Hamish Jamieson, Otago University researcher and geriatrician.
The study is comparing patient outcomes on a nationwide health database with results from a newly-developed electronic measure called the Drug Burden Index, or DBI, to see if the DBI can accurately predict which elderly are most at risk of drug harm.
Early overseas trials indicate a high DBI is a good predictor of falls, fractures, loss of independence and even death.
Researchers say if the Drug Burden Index does predict adverse side effects from drugs, it could allow doctors to electronically calculate the risk before medicines are prescribed to the elderly, preventing harm and saving lives.
A high DBI calculation score would throw up a red flag on the doctor's computer.
"So the patients and clinicians can see that and use that to together decide if continuing to use these medications is appropriate," Dr Jamieson said.
If not, the patient can be taken off that drug or prescribed another.
It's hoped a pilot project with GPs and pharmacists might be underway by the end of this year.