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The Pharmacist Who Says No to Drugs

Armon B. Neel Jr. shows patients — and their doctors — the way to better health with fewer medications

a consultant pharmacist who works to ensure that older people aren't over- and/or mis-medicated

Armon B. Neel Jr., a certified geriatric pharmacist, evaluates the medications older people take or are given on doctors’ orders. — Photo by Marc Asnin/Redux

En español | Editor’s note: Every year, 38 million older Americans experience serious — often life-threatening — complications from the medicines they take. And the problem seems to be getting worse, not better.

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The number of Americans treated in hospitals for medication-related problems surged from 1.2 million in 2004 to 1.9 million in 2008, and more than half of those hospitalized were 65 and older. A recent study estimated that roughly 1 in 7 Americans 65 and older is taking at least one potentially inappropriate medication.

Neel hasn’t worked behind a prescription counter since the early 1970s, when he gave up dispensing drugs for a career that would often put him on a collision course with the doctors who prescribe them.

For nearly 50 years, Armon B. Neel Jr., a certified geriatric pharmacist, has been caring for older patients, often in nursing homes, to evaluate the medications they are taking or being given on doctors’ orders.

The following article about Neel — who is now 72 and absolutely not retired — first appeared in the September 2004 issue of AARP Bulletin. We have updated the profile and are republishing it here because too many older adults continue to be overmedicated, at great personal and financial cost. Neel is now writing an advice column for AARP.org. Go to Ask the Pharmacist to submit your question.

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Ruby Gifford, 86, has come to see Armon B. Neel Jr. out of fear and perhaps even desperation.

Gifford (her name has been changed in this story to protect her privacy) hasn’t been feeling well lately, and the list of symptoms that have prompted her to come to Neel’s office in Griffin, Ga., might well mark her as a hypochondriac in the eyes of many doctors.

The problems run from dizzy spells and falls to osteoarthritis and back pain, from uncontrolled high blood pressure and erratic pulse rates to anxiety and depression. Then there are the skin rashes, hives and other allergic symptoms that seem to have come out of nowhere. Gifford’s 60-year-old daughter has brought her to the Wednesday morning appointment, and the two wait anxiously in Neel’s conference room, where he meets with patients.

Neel isn’t a doctor. He’s a pharmacist whose specialty is determining whether people are taking the right medications — and in the right doses — for what ails them. Neel hasn’t worked behind a prescription counter since the early 1970s, when he gave up dispensing drugs for a career that would often put him on a collision course with the doctors who prescribe them.

Next: Too many drugs, too many falls. >>

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