Choosing Wisely: Things We Do For No Reason

Things We Do for No Reason: Prescribing Docusate for Constipation in Hospitalized Adults

© 2019 Society of Hospital Medicine

The “Things We Do for No Reason” (TWDFNR) series reviews practices that have become common parts of hospital care but which may provide little value to our patients. Practices reviewed in the TWDFNR series do not represent “black and white” conclusions or clinical practice standards but are meant as a starting place for research and active discussions among hospitalists and patients. We invite you to be part of that discussion.

Hospitalists can incorporate the ABIM Foundation’s Choosing Wisely recommendation(s) into daily practice. ABIM recommendations are located on the Choosing Wisely website.


An 80-year-old woman with no significant past medical history presents with a mechanical fall. X-rays are notable for a right hip fracture. She is treated with morphine for analgesia and evaluated by orthopedic surgery for surgical repair. The hospitalist recognizes that this patient is at high risk for constipation and orders docusate for prevention of constipation.


Constipation is a highly prevalent problem in all practice settings, especially in the hospital, affecting two out of five hospitalized patients.1 Multiple factors in the inpatient setting contribute to constipation, including decreased mobility, medical comorbidities, postsurgical ileus, anesthetics, and medications such as opioid analgesics. Furthermore, the inpatient population is aging in parallel with the general population and constipation is more common in the elderly, likely owing to a combination of decreased muscle mass and impaired function of autonomic nerves.2 Consequently, inpatient providers frequently treat constipation or try to prevent it using stool softeners or laxatives.

One of the most commonly prescribed agents, regardless of medical specialty, is docusate, also known as dioctyl sulfosuccinate or by its brand name, Colace. A study from McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, Canada reported that docusate was the most frequently prescribed laxative, accounting for 64% of laxative medication doses, with associated costs approaching $60,000 per year.3 Direct drug costs accounted for a quarter of the expenses, and the remaining three quarters were estimated labor costs for administration. Medical and surgical admissions shared similar proportions of usage, with an average of 10 doses of docusate per admission across 17,064 admissions. Furthermore, half of the patients were prescribed docusate upon discharge. The authors extrapolated their data to suggest that total healthcare spending in North America on docusate products likely exceeds $100,000,000 yearly. A second study from Toronto found that 15% of all hospitalized patients are prescribed at least one dose of docusate, and that one-third of all new inpatient prescriptions are continued at discharge.4


Instead of using docusate, prescribe agents with established efficacy. In 2006, a systematic review published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology graded the evidence behind different therapies for chronic constipation.21 They found good evidence (Grade A) to support the use of polyethylene glycol (PEG), while psyllium and lactulose had moderate evidence (Grade B) to support their use. All other currently available agents that were reviewed had poor evidence to support their use. A more recent study in people prescribed opioids similarly found evidence to support the use of polyethylene glycol, lactulose, and sennosides.25 Lastly, the 2016 guidelines from the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons do not mention docusate, though they comment on the paucity of data on stool softeners. Their recommendations for laxative therapy are similar to those of the previously discussed reviews.26 Ultimately, the choice of therapy, pharmacological and nonpharmacological, should be individualized for each patient based on the clinical context and cause of constipation. Nonpharmacologic treatments include dietary modification, mobilization, chewing gum, and biofeedback. If pharmacotherapy is required, use laxatives with the strongest evidence.


  • In patients with constipation or at risk for constipation, use laxatives with proven efficacy (such as polyethylene glycol, lactulose, psyllium, or sennosides) for treatment or prophylaxis of constipation instead of using docusate.
  • Discuss de-prescription for patients using docusate prior to admission.
  • Remove docusate from your hospital formulary.


Docusate is commonly used for the treatment and prevention of constipation in hospitalized patients, with significant associated costs. This common practice continues despite little evidence supporting its efficacy and many trials failing to show benefits over placebo. Decreased utilization of ineffective therapies such as docusate is recommended. Returning to the case presentation, the hospitalist should start the patient on alternative therapies, instead of docusate, such as polyethylene glycol, lactulose, psyllium, or sennosides, which have better evidence supporting their use.

Do you think this is a low-value practice? Is this truly a “Thing We Do for No Reason?” Share what you do in your practice and join in the conversation online by retweeting it on Twitter (#TWDFNR) and liking it on Facebook. We invite you to propose ideas for other “Things We Do for No Reason” topics by emailing


All authors deny any relevant conflict of interest with the attached manuscript.


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