Background: Variation in prescription costs between general practices and within practices over time is poorly understood.
Methods: From New Zealand's national health data collections, we extracted dispensed medicines data for 1045 general practices in 2011 and 917 practices continuously existing 2008-11. Using indirect standardization to account for patient demographics and morbidity, a standardized prescribing cost ratio (SPR: the ratio of actual : expected prescription costs) was calculated for each practice in each year. Case studies of three outlier clinics explored reasons for their status.
Results: SPRs ranged from 0.53 to 2.28 (median = 0.98). Of 469 practices with higher than expected costs (SPR > 1.0) in 2011, 204 (43.5%) had a single medicine or therapeutic drug class accounting for >15% of total costs. Case studies contrasted practices with overall pharmaceutical expenditure influenced strongly by a few patients needing high-cost medicines, more patients using medicines in one high-cost therapeutic drug class (antiretrovirals), and high medicine use across all therapeutic drug classes.
Conclusions: Routine data collections can measure inter-practice variation in prescription costs, adjusted for differences in the demography and morbidity profile of each practice's patients. Small groups of patients using high-cost medicines influence general practices' expenditure on pharmaceuticals.
Keywords: New Zealand; data collection; general practice; health expenditures.
© The Author 2015. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Faculty of Public Health. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.