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February 2021

Introducing the AC-FRAIL tool: a novel tool to proactively identify older people with frailty for medication reviews

By David Mehdizadeh and George Peat.

Medicines are often thought of in terms of their ability to help manage and treat health conditions. Indeed, medicines are the most commonly used health intervention. However, if we are to continue to use medicines safely and appropriately, it is important that we also acknowledge that medicines can also lead to avoidable harm.

Anticholinergics are a class of medicines used to treat a wide range of conditions, from diseases of the lung to Parkinson’s disease. Despite their wide use they can be high risk and potentially inappropriate, particularly for older people living with frailty. Frailty can be understood in terms of the decline in body systems that typically occurs in later life, reducing resilience to stressors such as an infection, or indeed a medicine [1]. Everyone can potentially experience some side effects from medicines, however older people with frailty are more sensitive to medicines, and are less likely to tolerate adverse effects [2]. In particular, it is thought they are more susceptible to the adverse effects associated with the accumulation of anticholinergics, known as anticholinergic burden. These include physical impairments, falls and cognitive decline [3-5]. Consequently, it is important that patients living with frailty who are prescribed medicines with anticholinergic properties have their medicines routinely reviewed to ensure that they continue to be safe and appropriate [2].

Structured Medication Reviews or ‘SMRs’ are part of the national service specification delivered by Primary Care Networks (PCNs) in England. A priority patient cohort to attend an SMR are older patients living with frailty who may also have been prescribed high-risk medicines, such as those with anticholinergic properties. To ensure these patients are appropriately targeted, guidance on SMRs encourage the use of tools and technology. However, a paucity existed in appropriate tools to identify patients living with frailty who were also taking anticholinergic medicines.

To address this gap, the safe use of medicines theme in collaboration with the digital innovations theme, both of the NIHR Yorkshire and Humber Patient Safety Translational Research Centre, have developed the AC-FRAIL tool. This unique tool proactively identifies patients across a GP surgery’s patient population with high anticholinergic burden, and who live with frailty. This offers a useful and efficient tool for primary care clinicians to prioritise the most vulnerable patients for SMRs. The tool is designed to be easily installed within IT systems used by GP surgeries, with the output being a user-friendly platform which stratifies the practice population (aged 65 and over) by their estimated frailty severity, and number of anticholinergic medicines they are being prescribed. The outcome is a list of patients who are considered at greatest risk of adverse effects from their medicines, and should be prioritised for a SMR.  This is a proactive approach to the identification of patients, rather than reactive care.

Evidence of associations between anticholinergic burden and adverse outcomes in older people underpins the AC-FRAIL tool [1-3], in addition to literature highlighting how the frail are particularly vulnerable to stressors such as high-risk medicines [4-5]. Based on this evidence, we hypothesise that older people with advancing frailty are at greater risks from anticholinergic burden, compared to fitter older people, and hence why the AC-FRAIL takes a population stratification approach to identifying the most frail. However, evidence is limited in this field, and further research is required to investigate the extent of risks of anticholinergic burden across the frailty spectrum. Researchers within the safe use of medicines and digital innovations themes within the centre are conducting a variety of mixed-methods studies to further these investigations. These studies aim to understand the associations between anticholinergic medicines and adverse outcomes in frailty, and which anticholinergic medicines in particular may be of greatest concern to these populations. These include literature reviews, and analyses of patient datasets. Additionally, we have conducted interviews with 25 health care professionals to gather their perspectives of anticholinergic burden, frailty, and the use of tools to support safer prescribing decisions. These studies will help inform further development of the AC-FRAIL tool, as well as other tools to support safer prescribing.

We aim to continue to test and evaluate the AC-FRAIL tool as part of our ‘Deciding to Deprescribe’ study.  To find out more about our AC-FRAIL tool please read our recently published article at

This research was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Yorkshire and Humber Patient Safety Translational Research Centre (NIHR Yorkshire and Humber PSTRC). The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.



  1. Clegg A, Young J, Iliffe S, Rikkert MO, Rockwood K. Frailty in elderly people. The lancet. 2013 Mar 2;381(9868):752-62.
  2. Hilmer SN, Gnjidic D. Prescribing for frail older people. Australian prescriber. 2017 Oct;40(5):174.
  3. Welsh TJ, van der Wardt V, Ojo G, Gordon AL, Gladman JR. Anticholinergic drug burden tools/scales and adverse outcomes in different clinical settings: a systematic review of reviews. Drugs & aging. 2018 Jun;35(6):523-38.
  4. Salahudeen MS, Duffull SB, Nishtala PS. Anticholinergic burden quantified by anticholinergic risk scales and adverse outcomes in older people: a systematic review. BMC geriatrics. 2015 Dec;15(1):1-4.
  5. Richardson K, Fox C, Maidment I, Steel N, Loke YK, Arthur A, Myint PK, Grossi CM, Mattishent K, Bennett K, Campbell NL. Anticholinergic drugs and risk of dementia: case-control study. bmj. 2018 Apr 25;361.