The Medicine Cabinet: Ask the Harvard Experts
By Howard LeWine, M.D.
Q: I had a mild heart attack a few months ago. Right after, I was very faithful with my medications. But more recently I find myself missing doses and making excuses for not taking my pills. Thoughts? Suggestions?
A: You have a lot of company. They haven’t been able to overcome the many barriers to taking their medicine as they should. Doctors call it medication non-adherence.
I suspect you now feel well. That often translates into consciously or subconsciously questioning whether you really need multiple pills.
Unlike taking a drug to relieve symptoms like pain, you can’t feel your medications doing something when you take them to decrease your risk of a future health problem.
You can’t feel your cholesterol levels dropping. Nor can you feel the way lower cholesterol levels prevent your coronary arteries from getting fat buildup to prevent another heart attack.
For people like you, the benefits of pill-taking are only theoretical. Perhaps the pills are just a reminder of your health issue or cause side effects. Or the barrier to medication adherence might be the cost of drugs, easy access to a pharmacy or a complex medication program that is too difficult to follow.
So how can you make peace with your medications? To manage medications, start with an up-to-date list that includes what each medication is used for, the proper strength, and dosing instructions.
Some simple things can help you remember to take medications. Most people already know about multiple-compartment pillboxes. Newer gadgets can help, too, like electronic pill caps that remember when you opened the bottle to take a pill out. Some have a built-in reminder alarm or can text you when it’s time to take a dose. Smartphone apps for tracking medications also abound.
Don’t forget the low-tech solutions. Put your medications in a place where you will see them every day. That could be next to your toothbrush, coffeemaker, or car keys. Pick a spot that you associate with something you do every day.
(Howard LeWine, M.D., is an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.)