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Skipping Your Meds? Here's Why That's a Bad Idea

Skipping Your Meds? Here's Why That's a Bad Idea

Not taking the right doses at the right time—or omitting your medications completely—can put your health in danger.

Taking medication is necessary for millions of people; it's estimated between 50 and 70 percent of US adults have a prescription at any given time. While adherence to those drugs—meaning, using them as prescribed by your physician—is critical for your health and overall wellbeing, many people skip them completely or take them incorrectly. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that about half of Americans don't take their meds as prescribed.

What's more, a December 2012 review in Annals of Internal Medicine estimated that lack of adherence to prescriptions causes 125,000 deaths and a minimum 10 percent of hospitalizations yearly, and costs our healthcare system up to $300 billion annually.

Reasons for medical non-adherence
“It happens all the time,” says Jennifer Caudle, DO, a board-certified family medicine physician and Associate Professor in the department of Family Medicine at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine. While reasons for not taking medication vary from person to person, the most common explanations from patients include:

  • Forgetfulness
  • Financial hardships
  • Unpleasant side effects
  • Concerns about possible side effects
  • Confusion regarding how the medication works

“Another reason is the fact that some patients are not entirely comfortable taking medications, period!” states Dr. Caudle. “This could be due to a whole set of in-depth reasons—perhaps they’d prefer what they consider to be a natural or holistic solution—but there are people who feel they would rather do without, and that’s a big issue.”

Also, some adults are unaware of how medication works to improve or manage their health condition. “I don’t blame patients for this lack of knowledge, especially those who think, ‘Now I feel better, I can stop,’” she continues. “It could simply be a misunderstanding, and this is where physicians and patients need to do a better job of communicating.” The flip side of this: patients may expect to feel differently when they're on medication, and if they don't, they may not believe it's working.

What happens when you don't take your meds
Since medication is prescribed to cure a temporary medical issue (like the flu or an ear infection), manage a chronic condition (like diabetes) or prevent a recurrence of a significant health event (such as a heart attack or stroke), poor adherence could result in complications, disease progression and even death. For example, when it comes to cardiovascular disease—the leading cause of death among men and women of all ethnicities in the US—the American Heart Association states that patients who do not take heart meds as prescribed may be faced with “serious consequences,” including up to a 40 percent increased risk of a hospital stay, and a 50 to 80 percent increased risk of mortality.

“The sheer act of stopping particular medications without soliciting the advice of your doctor—that in and of itself can cause harm,” adds Caudle. The reason: it could result in other health complications (aside from not treating the chronic condition), as well as adverse side effects. “There are certain blood pressure meds, for example, that if stopped abruptly could worsen blood pressure, among other things. We don’t want to stop anti-depressants abruptly, either.”

Again, Caudle stresses the importance of having an open dialogue with your doctor. “I always tell my patients, ‘It’s okay that you want to stop a medication—but what I ask you to do is talk to me, let me know what you’re thinking and what your concerns are, so we can come up with a plan that works for you,’” she says. “Even if someone can’t afford the medication, I want to know so I can try to help them navigate this problem.”

Tips for taking your meds
One of the most common reasons people take their meds incorrectly? According to a survey, they simply forget. That's why Caudle is "a big fan" of pill boxes. “They’re great for keeping meds organized and you can easily see if you’ve taken your pills that day or not.” She suggests keeping the meds in a place you visit at least once a day as part of your routine, like next to your toothbrush.

“Then there’s technology—a number of apps can remind us to take our meds each day and to refill the prescription before we’re down to the last pill,” concludes Caudle. “After all, forgetting to call in time for a refill can result in days without meds, as well.” Try Sharecare for iOS or Android, which includes an easy-to-use medication tracker.

Remember, too, that communication with your doctor is key; they can share strategies to improve your medication adherence and work with you to make sure your needs are being addressed. In the end, your health is worth it.

Medically reviewed in July 2018.

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