Patient: On your own with Multiple Meds
Newswise — People with chronic illness often
struggle to manage several prescribed drugs
at a time. It’s overwhelming when the vials,
bottles and inhalers bulge from your
medicine cabinet and you’re confused about
which drug is which, or when to take what.
More medications seem to come with the
territory as people get older. “Prescription
drug use is heavily concentrated in people
over 55 to 65,” says Steven Findlay, senior
health policy analyst at Consumers Union.
Of older adults, 12 percent use 10 or more
medications per week, according to a new
report from the Center for Technology and
Even though people “know” they should take
their pills as directed, for the most part,
they don’t. But so much is at stake when
people mix up their medicines or skip or
take incorrect doses, study after study has
People who stick with their blood pressure
medicines and take them as prescribed
significantly lower their risk of heart
attack and stroke. For people with diabetes,
staying on top of their medication means
better blood sugar control and fewer
long-term complications – like serious
infections and vision problems.
Medications are powerful tools and also pose
powerful risks. Every year, anticoagulant
drugs – blood “thinners” like Coumadin (warfarin)
used to prevent blood dangerous blood clots
– cause bleeding episodes, a small portion
of them fatal, when people mistakenly take
too high a dose. So getting your medication
routine down is critically important.
When You Have Lots of Meds
Greg Duggins, a medical biller in Garrison,
N.Y., developed hepatitis in the early
1990s. His health deteriorated to the point
where he underwent a liver transplant in
Duggins realized that after the transplant
he would have to take a host of medicines –
including immunosuppressant drugs to prevent
his body from rejecting the new liver.
“When I was in the hospital [taking my meds]
the nurses just held my hand while they
quizzed me,” he recalls. He was able to
repeat their instructions, which included
complex schedules to allow him to taper
dosages safely rather than stopping certain
drugs too abruptly. No problem, he thought.
Then it was time to leave the hospital with
his box of medicines.
“When I got home, I realized that I didn't
know a multivitamin from an
immunosuppressant,” Duggins said.
So, How Do You Sort Out Your Meds?
Don’t guess when it comes to taking your
Make sure you leave the doctor’s office
knowing the name of the drug, its strength,
how much to take and how to take it. Ask WHY
you’re taking the medicine, and not only
that, what the drug should do and how long
it should be before you see results.
While you’re in the doctor’s office or
pharmacy, take notes. Enlist a family member
or friend as a second set of ears when
you’re learning about your meds.
“Before discharge, they asked me to bring a
family member,” Duggins says. “My sister
Linda is a stickler. She took copious
notes.” about all the drugs he would need to
take. Of course, you can take your own notes
during an appointment as well.
An online search led Duggins to a program
that allows users to create their own drug
schedule at home, complete with visual aids
to avoid mix-ups. He downloaded a new form
and filled in each of his own drugs one by
one. Now he has a clear timetable to work
“I created an account; that’s an option. The
first page asked me to list drugs and it
showed me pictures and what the drugs are
for. The program gives brand names and
You can access the free MyMedSchedule
program online, in English or Spanish.
Behavior changes like people using pillboxes
organized by day of the week or time of day
– ¬or doctors reducing the number of daily
doses or by prescribing multiple medicines
with matching time schedules ¬– can help
people take their medicines as needed, a
recent University of Missouri study found.
A variety of online and electronic tools and
aids exist to help keep multiple meds
straight: see the sidebar for some examples.
For many people, low-tech methods work every
bit as well: jotting down instructions on a
notepad or checking off drug dosages on the
refrigerator calendar. If you can connect
your medication-taking to habits you already
have – like taking daily doses when your
brush your teeth in the morning –
remembering becomes easier.
Do You Still Need This Drug?
Are you supposed to take all these drugs for
the rest of your life? Maybe you don’t need
all of them or you and your doctor have
fallen into a habit of automatically
Greg Duggins still has his big medicine box
but it’s no longer as full: he’s been weaned
off several drugs and now takes “just” six
different meds to stay the course.
“If people are taking multiple medications
on a regular basis, they need to have an
annual check-up,” says Rebecca Snead,
executive vice president of the National
Alliance of State Pharmacy Associations. In
fact, she says, for patients on Medicare,
“Those who are eligible will get a
comprehensive medication review on an annual
basis, starting [this year]. But even if
it’s not a covered benefit, you need to sit
down and have a comprehensive medication
review every year.”
Taking the complete list of your drugs to
your appointments offers an opportunity to
raise questions and make sure that the
medications you’re taking are still right
for you today.
--Center for Advancing Health
Extra Meds: Toss, Flush or Recycle?
You’ve come off a medication: now how do you
get rid of “leftover” drugs? Guidelines
From the federal Office
of National Drug Control Policy
New guidelines from the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration
Labels: To guard your privacy, don’t toss
the label – which includes your name – along
with the prescription vial. Peel it off,
then glue or tape it onto a piece of paper
so you can shred it, experts advise.
Sharing Medications: Don’t.
One way NOT to get rid of extra meds:
sharing them with friends or family members.
“People believe if the doctor prescribes and
the pharmacist dispenses medicine, they can
use it [as they like] and share it with
their family,” says Rebecca Snead, of the
National Alliance of State Pharmacy
Associations. But resist the temptation to
give away prescription antibiotics,
painkillers or other drugs: It isn’t safe.