The use of medicines has increased markedly in many countries over recent years, providing clear evidence of the increasing 'pharmacaeuticalisation' of society. This paper contributes to the sociological analysis of pharmaceuticalisation by starting to explore how we can begin to make judgements as to when and to what extent some medicines are being overused - an important aspect that, rather surprisingly, has not so far been the focus of attention those analysing the process. It considers the World Health Organisation's criteria for the 'rational' use of medicines, pointing to some of the issues they raise. It then develops a typology of over and underuse derived from these criteria. This provides a framework for the discussion of assessing overuse that focuses in particular on the widespread and increasing use of medicines that are not very effective for the conditions for which they are prescribed, and their use where the issue of clinical need is in doubt. Some of the factors that encourage overuse are also considered.
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