Every day, millions of people in the U.S. take prescribed drugs to help them live their lives.
As our understanding of medicine has evolved, we’ve been able to develop drugs to aid with some of the most common medical conditions - from pain and blood pressure drugs to asthma medication, thyroid treatments, and antidepressants.
But which drug is prescribed the most and how frequently? As VisualCapitalist's Omri Wallach details below, sorting the annual prescribed medicines data by the total number of patients highlights how important and prevalent some drugs are in America.
This graphic uses prescribed medicines data from the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, released in 2021 for the 2019 calendar year. It also uses supporting drug and health information from MedlinePlus.
The most prescribed drug, atorvastatin (sold under brand Lipitor), was prescribed to 24.5 million people in the U.S. in 2019, or 7.5% of the population. It was one of many statin medications listed, which are used to prevent cardiovascular disease and treat abnormal lipid levels.
In fact, a majority of the most prescribed drugs in the U.S. are used to treat high blood pressure or symptoms of it. That’s because 108 million or nearly half of adults in the U.S. have hypertension or high blood pressure.
Other common prescriptions include antibiotics like amoxicillin and azithromycin, used to treat bacterial infections, as well as levothyroxine, which was used by 19.7 million Americans to treat thyroid hormone deficiency.
Asthma medication albuterol (usually prescribed through an inhaler) rounded out the top five prescribed drugs with the most patients, followed closely by Type 2 diabetes medication glucophage.
The Top Medical Conditions Treated by Prescription Drugs
The prevalence of cardiovascular-related medication becomes clear when combining the total patients for each type of medication.
The total number of patients with prescribed medication for blood pressure or cholesterol combined for 33% of the U.S. population.
Compared to that, medication for pain or inflammation were the most frequent on the top 30 list with five occurrences, but were only prescribed to 13.6% of people. That includes hydrocodone (known by the brand name Vicodin) and tramadol (known by the brand name Ultram), two opioid medications.
Most of the top 30 prescribed medications for specific conditions saw patients total less than 6% of the U.S. population. They include thyroid issues, gastrointestinal conditions, and mental conditions treated by antidepressants (including panic disorder, anxiety disorders, and PTSD).
But it’s important to remember that some patients have multiple prescriptions for serious conditions with multiple symptoms, or comorbid conditions—when more than one disease or condition is present at the same time.
Drug Spending in the U.S.
A prescribed drug’s total number of patients doesn’t necessarily reflect how important it is, or how expensive it is for the end user. Levothyroxine is the fourth-most prescribed drug by total patients, but the second-most prescribed drug by total prescriptions with 102.6 million in 2019 at an average cost of $25.10 per prescription.
More specialized medication like fluticasone had significantly less total prescriptions with 27.9 million, but an average cost of $97.68 per prescription. Prices are influenced by a drug’s demand, whether or not it’s patented or available in generic form, and a country’s healthcare system. As far as OECD countries go, the U.S. ranks as the most costly almost across the board.
Since the current rankings look at the U.S. pre-COVID, next year’s prescription data will be illuminating as to the state of American health (and healthcare).