June 9, 2021

TELUS Health Drug Trends report: Acute medication claims declined in early months of pandemic

Sixth annual report suggests changes in Canadians’ health priorities with decreased use of medications such as antibiotics for common infections

Costs for specialty drugs increasing along with claims for mental health medications

Toronto – Prescription drug claims for acute care medications, such as antibiotics, saw significant declines at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the sixth annual TELUS Health Drug Data Trends & National Benchmarks Report released this week. The report also shows that claims for specialty drugs designed to treat rarer, yet increasingly chronic diseases continue to account for a large percentage of eligible costs, while claims for medications to treat mental health conditions also increased.

“A decline in claims for common medications like antibiotics in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic was evident in the report findings and may be correlated to populations quarantining thereby reducing the spread of common infections, or quite possibly Canadians avoiding or delaying care due to fear of exposure to the virus,” said Shawn O’Brien, Principal, Health Benefits Management, TELUS Health. “This trend speaks to the importance of working Canadians understanding what is covered in their benefit plan, and employers having a diverse range of tools, including virtual care services, to support their employees in managing their physical and mental health. As a partner to the health benefits community, we remain committed to introducing innovative tools and practices to continue supporting improved employee health.”

Top findings from the 2020 report include:

The pandemic impacted use of acute medications for common infections

  • In April 2020, average claims for acute medications, such as antibiotics for common infections, dropped by 22 per cent compared to the previous month.
  • Claims for azithromycin alone, an antibiotic used for common infections such as ear infections and strep throat, dropped by 73 per cent during the second quarter of 2020.
  • Claims for acute medications did, however, see a rise towards the latter half of 2020, likely due to more Canadians having access to and using virtual care services to secure treatment.


Specialty drugs continue to drive up eligible costs

  • Specialty drugs remain the single biggest factor influencing private drug plan management and account for a third of overall costs – yet are used by just 1.3 per cent of total claimants.
  • Among the most prescribed specialty drugs are those that treat:
    • Rheumatoid arthritis – accounting for 99 per cent of eligible costs
    • Skin disorders – accounting for 62 per cent of eligible costs
    • Cancers – accounting for 79 per cent of eligible costs
  • Average eligible costs for specialty drugs increased by 8.7 per cent for insured Canadians aged 25 to 64, compared to 1.3 per cent for non-specialty or traditional drugs.
  • Québec saw the highest increase in specialty drug claims at 10.4 per cent, whereas Western Canada had the lowest rate of growth for specialty drugs at 6.3 per cent.
  • Private plans in Atlantic Canada bear the highest cost burden for specialty drugs, while those in Western Canada bear a much lighter load as provincial pharmacare offsets the costs within private plans.


Mental health claims continue to rise among insured Canadians

  • Claims for drugs used to treat depression increased by 10 per cent for adults and 22 per cent for dependents in 2020.
  • For 20–39-year-olds, the number of claimants for antidepressants climbed from the seventh most prescribed type of medicine at 5.6 per cent in 2016 to fourth spot at 7.9 per cent by the end of 2020.


“The COVID-19 pandemic forced Canada’s health system to adjust quickly to new priorities and there were many key learnings for those who manage health benefits plans,” said Caroline Le Pottier, consulting pharmacist, TELUS Health. “As an industry, we must keep a close eye on trends in medication usage and consider plan design tools that help to ensure employee benefits plans continue to meet the changing needs of working Canadians.”

Published annually since 2015, the TELUS Health Drug Trends and National Benchmarks Report considers major trends in private drug plan costs, utilization, and benefits plan management. It provides a snapshot of the previous year, exploring trends in drug claims activities for more than 13 million insured Canadians across 150 million prescription drug claims. The report also summarizes adoption rates of benefits plan design tools, such as mandatory generic substitution, managed formularies and lists of medicines that may be prescribed.

For additional trends and insights, read the full report.

About TELUS Health
TELUS Health is a leader in digital health technology, providing virtual care, home health monitoring, electronic medical and health records, benefits and pharmacy management, and personal emergency response services. By leveraging the power of technology to deliver connected solutions and services, TELUS Health is improving access to care and revolutionizing the flow of information while facilitating collaboration, efficiency, and productivity for physicians, pharmacists, health authorities, allied healthcare professionals, insurers, employers, and citizens, to progress its vision of transforming healthcare and empowering people to live healthier lives.

Through the TELUS Health Care Centres, teams of renowned and passionate healthcare professionals deliver best-in-class patient-centric care to thousands of Canadian employers, professionals, and families in more than 15 medical clinics located across the country.
For more information please visit: www.telushealth.com.

For media inquiries, please contact:

Jill Yetman
TELUS Public Relations