5 Steps to Starting Your New Prescription Right

Beginning a new prescription can be challenging. Here are smart strategies to make sure you start off on the right foot.

Pharmacist giving medication instructions to woman

So, you’ve been prescribed a new medication. Maybe it’s the first or maybe it’s the fifth that you must fill and take regularly. Your clinician likely will have talked with you about your dosing schedule and why following your prescription closely—what’s known as “medication adherence”—is so important.

What you may or may not have covered with your doctor are some of the roadblocks you may encounter when it comes to sticking with your medication schedule, as well as the pitfalls that may come from not taking your prescription.

Taking your meds as directed may sound simple enough, but for many patients, it can be a challenge. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 50 percent of people with chronic conditions don’t take their prescription medications as directed, for a variety of reasons.

Planning in advance for the types of hurdles that may get in the way of taking your medications as prescribed can help maximize the beneficial effects of your treatment.

Start with your healthcare contact

If the information you receive during doctors’ visits sometimes seems to go by in a blur, you’re not alone: Research suggests that patients may remember and understand as little as 50 percent of what they talk about in a healthcare appointment.

Why might that be the case?

For starters, dosing instructions for prescriptions can be hard to grasp, particularly if you’re taking several medications for one or more conditions. Adding to the complexity is the way in which some medications need to be taken with food, others on an empty stomach and others on different timetables throughout the day. But coming away with accurate information is key to taking your medication exactly right.

Take notes during your healthcare appointments, either with pen and paper or using a notes feature on your smartphone. Before you leave the doctor’s office, it may help to read those notes back to your provider so that you are both clear on the instructions you’ve received.

Tap your pharmacist’s knowledge

Pharmacists are also there to answer your questions. Don’t be afraid to accept the pharmacist consult that will often be offered when you fill a new prescription. Some states even require pharmacists to offer this consult. Think in advance about questions you might have about your new drug. These might include:

  • What is this medication, and what will it do for me?
  • What is the best way for me to take this drug and when should I take it (such as with food, without food, before bed or in the morning)?
  • What should I do if I forget a dose?
  • What should I do if I accidently double a dose?
  • What should I watch out for in terms of side effects and what actions should I take if I experience them?
  • Will this drug have any interactions with foods or supplements I should know about? 
  • What’s the best source of information if I have other questions?

Be a patient patient

Not every drug will show an immediate effect, which can be frustrating.

Take prescriptions for heart disease, for example. You may be taking a medication to treat a condition—such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure—that has no outward signs, so it won’t be apparent to you whether the drug is having its intended effect. In cases like these, you’ll need to wait till your next doctor’s visit to find out whether your cholesterol or blood pressure numbers are improving and whether your medication is benefiting you.

It’s important to remember that drugs used for these conditions only work if you take them as prescribed, so if you stop taking them, your cholesterol or blood pressure values will likely rise, setting you on the path toward more serious heart disease.

Other types of prescriptions may yield noticeable improvement quickly, which may tempt you to stop taking the drug before you’ve completed the full course. An example is antibiotics.

When you take an antibiotic to clear up an infection in the short term, you may start to feel better in just a few days. As a result, you might decide to stop taking the drug. But stopping antibiotics too early could invite a return of the infection you need to treat—and it might come back in a form that’s resistant to the antibiotics that would have worked had they been taken in their full course.

With other medications, stopping them suddenly can be dangerous because of how the body reacts, so you need to understand how to taper off of them slowly. The bottom line: Always check with your clinician before you stop taking a medication earlier than prescribed.

Anticipate the side-effect effect

In some cases, side effects may appear but eventually subside. This can happen with some antidepressants, for example. Having patience while your body adjusts to the experience is important and can help lead you toward the desired benefits.

It can help to plan for this period of acclimation. For example, because insomnia can be a side effect of some drugs in the early stages, it might be a good idea to avoid adding non-critical items to your daily schedule while you take the time to adjust.

There’s also the flip side: What happens when side effects don’t go away, especially if you’re taking a drug indefinitely? Rather than stopping your drug, have a discussion with your clinician about how the expected benefits of the drug still weigh against the side effects you’re experiencing. Sometimes, a switch to a different drug in the same category can help. Obviously, with side effects that are alarming or that you know are red flags, seek medical help right away. Always ask if you’re not sure.

Make use of digital safety nets

Another common hurdle to sticking to your prescribed medication schedule includes the when, where and how of it:

  • When do you take it?
  • How do you take it? With or without food, avoiding what other drugs?
  • Where do you take it? If it’s an awkward drug to administer, such as an injectable, you have to make sure you’ve got the right place at the right time to take care of it.

You’ll need to map out how all of these factors will fit into your schedule and then, with your doctor’s help, find your best way to make them a part of your routine.

Lots of tools are available to help you remember your medication. You can take advantage of a host of smartphone apps (search “medication tracker” or “medication reminder,” for example), as well as the medication tracker on the Sharecare app (available for free on iOS and Android devices). Many pharmacies also let you sign up for email, text or phone alerts about your next refill coming due. They’ll even contact your clinician if you’re out of refills. Pharmacies that offer 90-day refills by mail can save you time and save you the trip for pickup.

If you build your own roadmap using these and other tools that fit your needs, you’re well on your way to navigating medication adherence and maximizing what these therapies can do for you.

Always remember that you’re not alone. Your healthcare provider is available to answer any questions you have, and when it comes to managing your prescriptions, there are no bad questions.

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