There is an out-of-control epidemic in the United States that costs more and affects more people than any disease Americans currently worry about. It’s called nonadherence to prescribed medications, and it is – potentially, at least – 100 percent preventable by the very individuals it afflicts.
The numbers are staggering. “Studies have consistently shown that 20 percent to 30 percent of medication prescriptions are never filled, and that approximately 50 percent of medications for chronic disease are not taken as prescribed,” according to a review in Annals of Internal Medicine.
People who do take prescription medications – whether it’s for a simple infection or a life-threatening condition – typically take only about half the prescribed doses. This lack of adherence, the Annals authors wrote, is estimated to cause approximately 125,000 deaths and at least 10 percent of hospitalizations, and to cost the American healthcare system between $100 billion and $289 billion a year.
Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop put it bluntly: “Drugs don’t work in patients who don’t take them.” This partly explains why new drugs that perform spectacularly well in studies, when patients are monitored to be sure they follow doctors’ orders, fail to measure up once the drug hits the commercial market.
More important, it explains why so many patients don’t get better, suffer surprising relapses or even die when they are given drug prescriptions that should keep their disorders under control.
Studies have shown that a third of kidney transplant patients don’t take their anti-rejection medications, 41 percent of heart attack patients don’t take their blood pressure medications, and half of children with asthma either don’t use their inhalers at all or use them inconsistently.
Dr. William Shrank, chief medical officer at the University of Pittsburgh Health Plan, said that when Aetna offered free medications to patients who survived a heart attack, adherence improved by 6 percent and there were 11 percent fewer heart attacks and strokes, compared with patients who paid for their medications and had an adherence rate of slightly better than 50 percent.
Still, there is hope for improvement, he said. Multiple drugs for a condition could be combined into one pill or packaged together, or dosing can be simplified. Doctors and pharmacists can use digital technology to interact with patients and periodically reinforce the importance of staying on their medication.
With fear of side effects a common deterrent to adherence, doctors should inform patients about likely side effects when issuing a prescription. Failing that, patients should ask: “What, if any, side effects am I most likely to encounter?”
Forgetting to take a prescribed drug is a common problem, especially for those ambivalent about taking medication. Patients can use various devices, including smartphones, to remind them to take the next dose, or use a buddy system to make adherence a team sport. Dr. Shrank suggested making pill-taking a habit, perhaps by putting their medication right next to their toothbrush.