Like many adults, I didn’t take much medication when I was younger. My use was limited to over-the-counter cold remedies and the odd antihistamine or pain reliever. I didn’t have to keep track of any daily medications, and I didn’t really use a pharmacy consistently — it seemed I moved apartments more often than I filled prescriptions. But over time, living with a chronic neurological illness prompted me to seek out providers and treatments that could improve my symptoms. By last fall, I had leveled up: my specialists were recommending 14 pills a day, to be taken at different times and on different schedules, some with food and some without.
That may sound like a whole lot (it sure does to me), but research shows I’m not alone. As many as 60 percent of Americans over the age of 20 take at least one daily prescription medication, and the average adult takes four. Seniors take the most daily medications of all adults. Experts are divided on the increasing trend in prescribing, which has risen by some estimates by up to 80 percent in the past decade. One thing is certain, though: managing a complex medication regimen isn’t intuitive, and it can be exhausting, especially if it’s not yours.
Master the Medication Maze
Caregivers often must administer medication to their loved ones — sometimes on top of managing their own medications! Whether you’re just learning to keep track of your own medications or you’ve started taking care of a family member who takes multiple prescriptions, let my experience guide you. Here are my tips for keeping on top of a complex medication regimen:
- Keep a centralized list of medications that includes both prescriptions and over-the-counter medications and supplements. Write them down all in one place, whether on a note on your cell phone or a handwritten list on your fridge. Although this may seem tedious, once you do it, you’ll never regret it. You don’t want to lug all those pill bottles to appointments, and some of them will have names that are hard to pronounce or remember. Add and remove items when there are changes and include dosage and frequency of use. The IBX Personal Health Record on ibxpress.com is a great tool for this because it gives you a clear view of all your health information in one place, including doctor visits, medications, chronic conditions, and more.
- Ask about potential side effects and interactions. Medications won’t necessarily affect everyone the same, but rigorous research exists to prepare patients for any unintended effects. Prescribing doctors should be able to talk you through the most common ways that medicines might impact both the body and the mind, which can help manage expectations. When a new medication is added, prescribers should review all other medications for interactions with the new drug, too.
- …And then ask again. I can’t even calculate how many medications there are on the market, between prescription drugs, over-the-counter remedies, and the vitamins and supplements that so many of us add to our diets. The more meds there are in the mix, the greater the potential for serious interactions. To get the most well-rounded picture of the possible drug interactions that could result from adding a new drug, mention new medications to every doctor you see.
- Develop a refill routine and stick with it. Use the same pharmacy for all your medications. Make sure it’s in a convenient location for you – maybe on the way home from work, or someplace you can walk to. Pharmacies are busiest during lunchtime and after the end of the regular workday, so if you don’t want to wait in line, see if you can go in the morning or mid-afternoon. Ask for help getting all prescription refills synched up so that you can refill everything at once and make just one trip.
- Get friendly with your pharmacist. Pharmacists are experts in understanding the effects of drugs on the human body. They can simplify a complex medication regimen by answering your questions, and they are the last, best defense against severe interactions, since they are the ones who hand medications over to the consumer. They can also help you take advantage of systems designed to help automate prescription refills, and can point you to time-saving tips and tricks to make using medications easier.
- Speaking of which, take advantage of programs offered by your pharmacy. Sign up for pharmacy reminder calls (my pharmacy texts me when my refills are due!), ask about signing up for 90-day supplies, and investigate mail-order options for medications that are unlikely to change. It’s critical to avoid an interruption in access to medications, so when things get busy, it’s a huge relief if you know that there are measures in place to help avoid running out. If you’re not already registered, sign up for timely health reminders from IBX WireTM.
- Find an alert system that works for your situation. Whether it’s an alarm clock, a cell phone calendar alert, or a phone call from a friend, make sure that when the day gets busy, some system is in place to prevent you from forgetting to actually administer (or take) those pills. Taking medications at the same time daily helps keep blood levels stable, which means fewer side effects and symptoms. You could keep a complex medication regimen in your head, but why should you? Using medication alerts lets you relax and use your brain for other things.
- Make taking pills as easy as it can be. Need to split pills? Make your life easier by buying a low-tech pill cutter. Do you need to take medication first thing in the morning? Put it next to the bed. Are you supposed to take your medication with food? Stock up on some soft granola bars or single-serve applesauce packs. Medication taste terrible? Offer a strong-flavored beverage to wash it down rather than water. And get a pill organizer. I swear it’s worth it. All these little things can make taking meds faster and more pleasant, which means it’ll be easier to stick with.
- Review medications periodically to see if they’re still the best options. For every medication, it’s important to weigh the benefits, and make sure they outweigh any adverse effects. Adverse effects are a deterrent to consistent medication use, so it’s worth having a conversation with your doctor about whether adverse effects are interfering with intended effects. Sometimes a medication might no longer be needed, or it could be replaced with a newer drug. Sometimes dosages can be changed. The goal should always be creating a medication regimen that is as simple and effective as possible, and that requires regular monitoring. The conversation about prescription drugs should be ongoing.
- Finally, never stop a medication without consulting the doctor. Even drugs that give patients undesirable side effects can cause worse symptoms if they’re stopped abruptly. In most cases, stopping without first reducing dosages gradually — called titrating — can be harmful. It’s also crucial to understand how stopping one medication will impact the effects of all others, so make sure to talk to a doctor about any planned changes to a complex medication regimen.