Taking Medication as Prescribed: Why It Matters

Emmanuel Kim, PharmD, is a clinical pharmacy specialist providing support for more than 40 Inova primary care clinics. He works alongside health care providers to help patients manage and optimize their prescription medications.

Medication only works if you take it — and take it correctly. But about 50% of the time, prescription drugs aren’t effective because people don’t take them as prescribed.

Experts agree that for medicine to work as expected, you need to stick (adhere) to the medication plan at least 80% of the time. Whether your prescription is an ongoing treatment for a chronic condition or a short course of drugs to treat an infection doesn’t matter; you need to take it as prescribed. Not adhering to your prescription medication causes up to 25% of hospitalizations yearly in the United States.

What Happens When You Don’t Take Medication as Prescribed?

When you don’t use medication as prescribed, it can’t effectively treat your condition. And the more serious the condition, the more serious the consequences. But even illnesses and infections that appear minor can take a turn for the worse if the prescription is not followed as expected. The result could be reinfection or even hospitalization.

If you take medication for a chronic condition, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, missing doses can cause additional issues. It can even be life-threatening — over 100,000 Americans lose their lives yearly due to medication non-adherence.

Barriers to Taking Medication as Prescribed

There are many reasons someone might not take their medication according to the prescription, including:

  • Cognitive impairment
  • Complexity of the treatment
  • Cost of medication
  • Cultural or alternate belief systems
  • Depression or lack of motivation
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Side effects (or fear of side effects)

Common Medication Mistakes to Avoid

Taking your medication incorrectly (even if you take it at the correct times) qualifies as non-adherence — you aren’t getting the medication exactly as prescribed. But you may not even know you’re making a mistake. Check to see if you’re making any of these common medication errors:

Cutting or crushing pills

Some pills should not be crushed or cut in half — it can reduce their effectiveness. If you can’t swallow the pill as prescribed, speak with your pharmacist or the prescribing physician to see your options.

Storing medication incorrectly

Some drugs need to be kept cold, while others are fine at room temperature. Check the label or ask your pharmacist if you aren’t sure. Steer clear of storing medications in bathrooms with a tub or shower — repeated exposure to moisture and humidity can tamper with medicine.

Taking it with/without food

Many prescriptions specify whether to take it with food or on an empty stomach. Don’t ignore that direction. Some drugs need food to help your body absorb the medicine. Others work best if they don’t interact with anything in your stomach.

Using an improper technique to inject or inhale medication

If your health care provider prescribes an inhaler or insulin pen, you must ensure you’re using it correctly. If the drug isn’t delivered as intended, it won’t be effective. Ask your physician or nurse if they can show you the correct technique or recommend an online video tutorial.

Taking expired medication

If you’ve missed doses or are reaching for old medication to treat a new condition, the drug could be expired. That means it may not be working at full strength. Talk to your PCP to get a new prescription.

Tips for Medication Adherence

The first step in taking medication as prescribed is understanding the prescription. You can ask your health care provider questions when they prescribe the medication. But don’t forget that your pharmacist is also an excellent resource.

When you pick up your prescription, let the pharmacist know if you have had prior reactions to any drugs. Mention any challenges you face with taking medication — such as trouble swallowing pills, difficulty reading the small print on the bottle or concerns about remembering to take it. Before leaving the pharmacy, check the prescription you received to ensure it’s correct.

Once you are home, set yourself up for success:

  • Set reminders: Free phone apps can keep you organized and remind you what medications to take and when. You can also manually set alarms on your phone or purchase products with timer functions — timer caps for pill bottles or pill organizers with a timer function.
  • Take medications at the same time every day: Try to work your medications into an already established routine in your day. Tie it in with brushing your teeth, your morning cup of coffee or getting ready for bed.
  • Travel smart: Heading out of town? Make sure to pack extra medication (in case your return is delayed). Put your medications in your carry-on bag when flying to ensure you have them when you need them. Keeping it in the main cabin also protects it from damaging temperatures in the cargo hold.
  • Use a pill organizer or packaging service: If you take multiple prescription medications, a pill organizer or packing service can make it easy to determine what you need to take throughout the day. You’ll need to set aside time regularly to put your pills in an organizer. A packaging service presorts multiple pills into easy-open pouches — grab a pouch at the appropriate time and take what’s in it.

If you have questions about the medications you take, schedule an appointment with your PCP using your MyChart patient portal, book an appointment online or call your doctor’s office directly. If you do not have a PCP, we welcome you to make an appointment with a provider at any of our Primary Care locations.

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