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Make Friends with Your Meds

Prescription medications are more powerful and beneficial than ever. One small tablet can help someone avoid a deadly stroke or heart attack by controlling blood pressure; another can keep a person with diabetes from having to administer daily insulin shots or use inhaled insulin; still others can reduce anxiety--or stem suicidal thoughts.

Yet, research indicates that many Americans don't take their prescriptions as ordered. Many of those don't even fill the prescriptions doctors give them. The incorrect use of medications leads to more then 9 million hospital admissions and more then 18 million emergency room visits each year. 

Motivation is the key. The decision about whether to take the medication ultimately resides with the patient. No matter how good the team of doctor and pharmacist, it's up to the patient to recognize the value of medication.

Profile of success

These tips can help you succeed with your medication regimens:

  • Find out why you need the medication and what it can do for you. People who understand why they're doing something are much more likely to follow through with it. With a migraine headache, you don't need a detailed explanation of why you should take a prescription painkiller. But what if your doctor says you may need to take medication to control high blood pressure for the rest of your life? You may not feel any different when taking the pills, so it's critical you learn why you need them and how they can protect your quality of life. Negative reinforcement motivates some people; for example, remind yourself you could suffer a debilitating stroke 10 years from now if you don't take your cholesterol-lowering medication today. For others, positive reinforcement works best. So many people are working toward retirement, and they want to be healthy in those years. They're making their investments 10, 20 or 30 years beforehand by controlling osteoporosis, high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

  • Get involved in your health care. When their health care providers write prescriptions, proactive patients don't accept or reject them at face value. They ask questions of their doctors and their pharmacists, go home and read up about their conditions and the treatments, then ask any further questions that come to mind. Any question is fair game--be it about side effects, potential for addiction or possible lifestyle disruptions, or how or why the medication should be taken. Pharmacists are ready to help when patients ask questions about their medications. Another way to be proactive: After starting on medication for high blood pressure, for example, ask your doctor what your blood pressure should be, then visit your local pharmacy to check your blood pressure.

  • Learn the appropriate way to take the medication. If medication must be taken on an empty stomach, for example, or if it should be taken three times a day for seven days, it can be very important to adhere to those instructions for both safety and health reasons.

  • Get the skills and support necessary for sticking with your dosage schedules. Consider asking a family member or friend to remind you to take your noontime pill. Or enlist the help and advice of your pharmacist or health care provider. These experts also can suggest a variety of tools that can help you stay on schedule. Here are some: beepers that go off when it's time to take meds; wristwatches with alarms; prescription vials whose caps beep at designated times; and plastic boxes in which you can sort out medications according to the day of the week and time of day.

  • Find ways to fit the medications into your daily routines. Tie it into something you do every day, such as brushing your teeth or watching a favorite television program. Make routine activities a reminder to take your medication.

  • See medications as something positive you are doing for yourself. Research has shown that medication reduces risk factors and symptoms when taken according to a doctor's instructions.

  • Don't cut short your medications without first consulting your health care providers. Suddenly stopping taking your medication can have serious consequences. For example, suddenly going off some blood-pressure medications can cause sharp elevations in blood pressure, which in rare cases could lead to a stroke or heart attack.

People give all sorts of misguided reasons for prematurely going off a medication regimen. Some stop because they begin feeling stronger and healthier--but feeling better could be the very reason to stay on a drug, not to discontinue it. Or perhaps they believe a drug is having no effect--when, in actuality, they must take it for weeks or months to relieve symptoms. Still others stop because of overly complex treatment regimens or worrisome or unpleasant side effects, or because they cannot afford the medication.

Always check with your doctor about any of these concerns. Very often the doctor can switch you to a different medication that doesn't cause the same side effects or a less expensive drug that will work. And with some drugs, side effects normally subside a few weeks after starting on them.