Five Tips for Effectively Managing Your Medications

Did you know adverse drug reactions are among the top five greatest health threats for older adults?1 Adults over 65 are twice as likely to visit an emergency room due to adverse drug reactions than younger people and seven times more likely to be hospitalized.2 Did you also know that in many cases those hospitalizations were preventable by avoiding common mistakes in taking medications?

“Managing your medications is one of the most important things you can do to maintain your health, particularly as you get older,” says Tim Colligan, Director of Managed Care Pharmacy, Optima Health. “Properly using your medications is important for everyone, but as you get older the risks increase. Your body reacts to medications differently. You take more medications and see multiple providers. You may discover sensitivities to certain medications or develop conditions that affects the medications you can take or how they’re administered.”

Twenty percent of patients 65 and older are prescribed 10 medications or more.3 Fifty percent of older adults also take over-the-counter medications or take dietary supplements.4 You may think this makes managing your medications complicated. It doesn’t have to be. Avoiding the most common mistakes and taking a few simple steps to learn more about your medications and communicate with your care providers will help you stay on the right path. Here are 5 tips to help you get started.

1. Follow instructions—don’t skip, split, or double-up

Failure to take medications as directed is the most common issue. Some patients try to maximize their pills by skipping days or splitting them. This reduces the medicine’s effectiveness and may lead to more serious issues.

“Many medications have a protective coating to ensure extended release, says Michael Snow, PharmD, Optima Health Medicare Pharmacists. “Splitting the pill destroys the coating and causes medication to be released much faster, possibly causing serious side effects.”

Doubling up when you miss a dose or increasing the amount of medication without consulting your care providers can create issues from mild side effects to organ damage and death. If frequently missing doses is an issue, ask for help from a loved one or take your medicine at the same time during your daily routine—when you brush your teeth, before your walk, with a meal if food is recommended. Pill organizers can be helpful, but are not a complete solution. Effective use of pill organizers requires proper use, careful attention and a consistent routine.

“When transferring medicine to pill boxes, patients sometimes make mistakes particularly with drugs that look similar, either by putting them in the wrong compartment or miscounting,” says Snow. “It’s helpful to have another set of eyes check for accuracy.”

Follow all medication instructions carefully. Ask your physician and pharmacist questions if you need further instructions or are unsure about the proper dosage, administration, side effects, or expectations.

If you have a loved one that frequently runs out of medication or has leftover doses, or seems confused about their medications, don’t let them manage their drugs alone.

2. Store your medications properly

Most medications are best stored in a dry, moderate, even-temperature location to prevent them from breaking down prematurely. Don’t store your medications in the bathroom or refrigerator, unless specifically directed.

Medications should be clearly labeled and stored in separate containers. Keep all family members’ medications in their own place separate from each other. This will help prevent you from taking the wrong medication or dose. Many medications look alike or have similar names.

3. Know your medications

Create a running list of your prescription and over-the-counter medications, herbal supplements, and vitamins. Be aware of their purpose, possible side effects, interactions with other drugs and supplements, and health improvements you can expect. Discuss your medications, possible interactions, and experiences with your pharmacist and physician during each visit or when changes occur.

Wellness checks that include medication reviews are beneficial. Your pharmacist and other health care providers are good resources if you have difficulty taking a certain medication or financial constraints. They may be able to recommend medications that are administered differently or less expensive options. They may also be able to connect you with additional resources that offer assistance.

Some medications should never be mixed or taken with supplements. The more you know about your medications, the less likely you are to make a mistake. The more information your share with your providers, the more accurately they can identify potential issues or adverse effects before they happen.

“Most older adults take multiple medications prescribed by different physicians,” says Colligan. “This makes it extremely important that you understand possible interactions and what your medications treat. Sometimes patients inadvertently receive duplicate drugs or medications with similar effects from different physicians. An example would be two drugs with sedative effects that taken separately are fine, but together cause over sedation. Maintaining a dialogue with your pharmacist and your physicians about your medications is key to preventing unwanted or dangerous side-effects.”

Your pharmacist, physicians, health insurance providers and other caregivers are all valuable resources to learn more about your medications. Optima Health and Sentara Healthcare have online tools with reputable drug information, as do many government and health organizations.

4. Be aware of possible food and supplement interactions

Food interactions are also important. Many foods, such as grapefruit, can affect the way your body metabolizes certain medications, causing potential dangerous interactions. Some foods, vitamins and other supplements can make certain drugs less effective. Similarly, some medications can cause your body to store higher amounts of certain nutrients, making vitamin supplements more risky.

As with drug interactions, pay attention to warnings and follow all directions. Be aware of potential issues and side effects. If you have concerns, raise them with your pharmacist and physician.

5. Build a relationship with your pharmacist and other care providers

Minimizing the number of physicians and pharmacies you use helps your providers more effectively coordinate your care and helps you build closer relationships with them.

“I recommend that people choose one pharmacy for all their medications,” says Snow. “This provides your pharmacist with a complete view of your medications and helps them more effectively look for and alert you to potential adverse interactions. I recommend people choose a pharmacist that provides personal attention, answers your questions and takes time to talk with you about your medications.”

“One out of three prescriptions go unfilled,” says Colligan. “Whether it’s because of costs, concerns about side effects, or some other reason, it’s always better talk with your care providers about options, alternatives, and risks.”

Optima Health works with members to help them better understand their medications and review their regimen for duplicate drugs, potential conflicts, or differences in what they are reporting and receiving. Optima Health also works with physicians to provide patterns of use and care to help them identify potential issues and make the best decisions for their patients.

“The most important things to remember are learn as much as possible about your medications, use the resources that are available, and communicate with your care givers,” says Snow. “Managing your medications is a team effort, but it starts with you.”

1 American Society for Consultant Pharmacists,, accessed April 2016.
2, accessed April 2016
3 “The Changing Landscape of Community-Based Pharmacy Practice, part 2 of 2 ” The Consultant Pharmacist, September 2015
4 “Polypharmacy, the Elderly, and Deprescribing” The Consultant Pharmacist, September 2015

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