Background and Objective Drug therapy is necessary to treat acute illness, maintain current health and prevent further decline. However, optimizing drug therapy for older patients is challenging and sometimes, drug therapy can do more harm than good. Drug utilization review tools can highlight instances of potentially inappropriate prescribing to those involved in elderly pharmacotherapy, i.e. doctors, nurses and pharmacists. We aim to provide a review of the literature on potentially inappropriate prescribing in the elderly and also to review the explicit criteria that have been designed to detect potentially inappropriate prescribing in the elderly.Methods We performed an electronic search of the PUBMED database for articles published between 1991 and 2006 and a manual search through major journals for articles referenced in those located through PUBMED. Search terms were elderly, inappropriate prescribing, prescriptions, prevalence, Beers criteria, health outcomes and Europe.Results and Discussions Prescription of potentially inappropriate medications to older people is highly prevalent in the United States and Europe, ranging from 12% in community-dwelling elderly to 40% in nursing home residents. Inappropriate prescribing is associated with adverse drug events. Limited data exists on health outcomes from use of inappropriate medications. There are no prospective randomized controlled studies that test the tangible clinical benefit to patients of using drug utilization review tools. Existing drug utilization review tools have been designed on the basis of North American and Canadian drug formularies and may not be appropriate for use in European countries because of the differences in national drug formularies and prescribing attitudes.Conclusions Given the high prevalence of inappropriate prescribing despite the widespread use of drug-utilization review tools, prospective randomized controlled trials are necessary to identify useful interventions. Drug utilization review tools should be designed on the basis of a country's national drug formulary and should be evidence based.