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Medication adherence, or taking medications as prescribed, involves getting prescriptions filled, remembering to take medication on time, and understanding the directions.

Why is adherence important?

Studies have shown that approximately half of patients do not take their chronic medications as prescribed. Nonadherence can include delaying or not filling a prescription, skipping doses, splitting pills, or stopping a medication early. Poor adherence can interfere with the ability to treat many diseases, leading to more or worse complications from the illness and a lower quality of life.

It can lead to unnecessary disease progression, disease complications, a lower quality of life, and even possibly premature death. Not taking your medicine as prescribed may lead you to experience longer or more serious illnesses or not get full relief of your symptoms.

Taking your medicines for as long as prescribed, at the right time and dose, and according to precise instructions, can help you feel and stay well. It assures the maximum benefit of the medicines you take and minimizes risk.

Common Barriers

  • Inability to pay for medications
  • Disbelief that the treatment is necessary or helping
  • Difficulty keeping up with multiple medications and complex dosing schedules
  • Confusion about how and when to take the medication
  • The side effects of certain drugs can sometimes make people feel worse instead of better

Common Misconceptions

If you feel better and no longer have symptoms, you may think your illness is cured and you can stop taking your medications.

  • In the case of antibiotics, you must take the full prescription, or a small number of bacteria are likely to still be alive. These surviving germs are likely to have some natural resistance to the antibiotic. As they multiply and spread, a new strain of resistant germs may begin to develop. This may be one way that Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) infections occur. MRSA is a type of bacteria that is resistant to certain antibiotics.
  • In the case of long-term medications, such as for high blood pressure, you must take the medication for as long as your doctor recommends, including getting refills. Stopping can result in having symptoms again you could develop new conditions from your original condition being out of control.

If someone has the same condition you have, you may think you can share medications. Doctors prescribe medications based on many factors including age, height and weight, and other medical conditions. What is right for one person may not be right for another person, even within the same family.

Overcoming Barriers and Misconceptions

  • If medication side effects are bothering you, talk with your doctor or pharmacist about what you can do to lessen the problem. You might be able to switch to a different medication or your doctor may be able to adjust the timing of your dose.
  • It’s important to use medications appropriately and to take the medication exactly as directed.
    • Take all doses prescribed, even if you think you are getting better.
    • Don’t stop taking the medication unless your doctor tells you to stop.
    • Don’t share medications with others.
    • Don’t save unfinished short-term medications such as antibiotics for another time. 
  • Make sure you understand how long to the medication. Some questions to ask when you're prescribed a new medication are:
    • Is it necessary to empty the bottle, or can I stop taking this medication once I feel better?
    • Will I need to get a refill, or can I stop treatment when the bottle is empty?
  • Make sure you understand what to do if the doctor changes a medication you routinely take. Changes might be a different dosage, more or fewer times per day, or a completely different medication. Some questions to ask when your medication changes are:
    • Do I need to keep taking the other medication or does this replace it?
    • Do I take this one the same way?
    • Have you updated the prescription at the pharmacy so I don’t have any more fills of the other prescription?
  • Tell your doctor if paying for prescription drugs is a problem. Your doctor may be able to prescribe a generic medication or a 90-day supply or both. Generic drugs use the same active ingredients and are shown to work the same way in the body, but they can cost much less. Often 90-day supplies are less expensive over the course of a year than 30-day supplies.
  • Set daily routines to take medication. It can be helpful to connect taking the medication with normal, daily activities such as eating meals or going to bed. You can also keep backup supplies of your medication at your workplace or in your briefcase or purse. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about how you could simplify your medication schedule such as taking your medicines at the same time each day.
  • Use daily dosing containers. These are available at most pharmacies and allow you to keep medications in compartments that are labeled with the days of the week and various dosage frequencies.
  • Keep a written schedule. This can cover the medications you take, how often you take them, and any special directions. There are a number of devices that have been designed to help patients adhere to a prescribed medication schedule. These include medication reminder wristwatches, automatic pill dispensers, and smart phone apps. Ask your pharmacist for suggestions as to which particular devices may be helpful for you.
  • Coordinate all medication refills to pick up at the same time each month. Consider using one pharmacy for all prescriptions and refills. The pharmacy can help you manage your refills and check for possible drug interactions.

Ask Questions

  • If you were expecting other medications to be filled, ask the pharmacist about it.
  • If you do not understand why you are taking any of the medications, ask your doctor when it is prescribed or at your next appointment.
  • If any of your medications make you sick, ask what you can do.
  • If you feel worse than before, ask your doctor right away if you can stop taking them and start a different medication.