Only you can manage your chronic condition – 5 tips to make sure you take your meds

You are at the doctor’s office. Your physician just told you that you have high cholesterol, and that she would like you to start taking statins to control it. This is a common diagnosis. In fact, about 4 in 10 Canadian adults have elevated levels of “bad cholesterol”. As with many chronic conditions, high cholesterol can be treated, and millions of Canadians live long and active lives with this diagnosis.

But what if you never fill the prescription? What if you change jobs and your new benefit plan no longer covers your cholesterol medication? What if you miss a pill? What if you miss more than one?

Former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop famously said that “Drugs don’t work in patients who don’t take them.” This is the simplest way to present the serious problem of medication non-adherence. The fact is that doctors can prescribe a course of treatment to control your condition, and pharmacists can advise you on how and when to take your medication, but ultimately, it comes down to the patient to take the medication as prescribed. A patient is considered adherent to their medication if they take it consistently as prescribed, with no significant gaps.

Read: Diabetes Awareness Month: Why is it so important to take your diabetes medication?

Regardless of the condition, medication non-adherence is a major problem in Canada. To start, about 30% of prescriptions are never filled. That medication is guaranteed not to work. But even if the prescription is filled, there is ample evidence that many patients don’t take their medication as prescribed. They may forget, they may skip doses, they may run out of medication and have a gap of a few days before they get to the pharmacy for a refill.

Regardless of the reason, missing your medication can lead to serious health problems. It is estimated that roughly 5% of all hospital and doctor visits are due to non-adherence, at an annual cost of $4 billion to the healthcare system. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that non-adherence leads to 125,000 deaths per year.

Tips to stick to your medication schedule

Sticking to your medication schedule is important, but it’s not the only thing you have to think about. Here are a few suggestions that may help you stay adherent, and healthy:

  1. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about financial challenges – If you’re concerned about the cost of a medication or your drug plan doesn’t cover the cost of the prescribed medication, talk to your doctor or pharmacist about it. They may recommend a generic drug or other alternative that would provide the same benefit at a lower cost.

Read: Q&A: What is generic medication?

  1. Have a routine and stick to it – If you have trouble remembering to take your medication, try taking it at the same time every day. Link it to meals, or brushing your teeth, so these daily events can serve as a reminder.
  2. Track each dose the old fashioned way – If you take more than a few pills a day, you could easily forget whether you took your lunchtime dose, bedtime dose etc. Keep a calendar with all your doses for the day, and check them off as you go. Alternatively, you can set a timer or buy a pillbox with a built-in timer.
  3. Use a pharmacy that offers refill and renewal reminders – If you take medication on an ongoing basis, it’s easy to run out of medication if you get busy and can’t get to the pharmacy. Some pharmacies will set you up on a refill and renewal schedule, and send you reminders when it’s time to refill your prescription or even when it’s time to go see your doctor for a new prescription. In some cases you can set up your prescription to refill automatically and your medication will arrive well in advance of running out.
  4. Use a daily pill box – Pill boxes come in all shapes and sizes. Find one that fits your medication schedule, then fill it once a week with all your pills for the coming week.

Read: Managing Medications with Multiple Sclerosis

Everyone is different, and we all have different reasons why we might not take our medications as prescribed. With chronic conditions, missing an occasional dose is not something that would have an immediate impact on your health, so it’s easy to become complacent. In the long run, however, missing doses will affect your health, and it’s worthwhile to put strategies in place to stick to a schedule as closely as possible.