Managing medication for long-term conditions

Photo of a patient with a medication package
Jevtic / iStock / Thinkstock

Many people need to take medication on a permanent basis. But it can be difficult to keep taking medication over a long period of time, especially if you need several different drugs. Then, a number of tools and strategies are available to help you.

If you’re having trouble taking medication every day, you’re not alone. Even just remembering to take it regularly isn’t that easy.

There are many different things that can help you take long-term medication and they are especially helpful if they’re combined. These include:

  • Talking with your doctor or pharmacist regularly to learn more about the drugs and how to use them
  • Packaging or containers that make it easy to know exactly when and how the drugs are supposed to be used
  • Motivational talks with a therapist or learning behavioral techniques to make long-term medication use easier
  • Electronic reminders to take your medication using special devices or a message on your cell phone

Studies have not yet shown whether these strategies are actually useful, or how effective they are. One reason is that participants needed to take long-term medication for a variety of different reasons, so they all had to follow different instructions on how to take their medication.

Also, the studies looked at a lot of different strategies for taking medication that weren’t always comparable. Specifically, there was no research observing the effects over several years. So the benefits of individual support strategies need to be examined in further studies.

How can information help when taking long-term medication?

Swallowing large tablets or handling an insulin pen isn’t always easy. If the dosage form or type of application is causing you trouble, your doctor’s office or your pharmacy can tell you

  • whether more information about the correct use is available,
  • whether you can use the same medication in a different form,
  • whether the drug is available in a different form, such as a capsule or a syrup, or
  • whether the medication can be ground up and mixed with food so that it’s easier to swallow.

Certain characteristics of a medication can also make it difficult to use it over the long term: For some medications, it may not be immediately or not at all noticeable if they’re working as intended, such as medicines that are meant to lower blood sugar levels in diabetes. Other medications, like antidepressants, only take effect after several weeks. If you then get the impression that it isn’t working, you might stop taking it. Talking with your doctor can help here as well.

Some people don’t want to take long-term medication out of fear of side effects. But it may make sense to risk some side effects, if the benefits outweigh the harm, especially if the medication can keep a more serious condition from progressing.

When deciding whether or not to use a medication, it’s important to know what your options are – including your non-drug options, and what might happen if you don’t have treatment at all. Acute health problems often improve on their own, and diseases can go away without treatment. But doing nothing may also result in a health problem developing into a serious condition. It makes sense to talk with your doctor about any fears and worries and ask them for more information so you can decide together. If you’d like to learn about how others who have the same condition handle taking long-term medication, you can contact a self-help group and ask for information.

How to keep track of your medication?

It’s very important to keep track of things if you need several different medications. But even just one drug can be a hassle: Some drug packages aren’t designed to make it easy to tell how and when to take them or whether you’ve missed a dose.

Special containers that show at a glance which tablets have to be taken when are available from pharmacies. These drug dispensers have small compartments for each day to organize your medication for an entire week at once - for example by putting one tablet of drug A into the compartments for morning, noon and evening, and two tablets of drug B into the compartments for evening.

Storing package inserts of your medications together with other important medical documents (like doctor’s letters, diagnostic results or your certificate of ) can make it easier to keep track of things.

Ideally you should also write down which medications you need to take when and at what dosage. You can use a form or a simple notebook to list all of the medications.

Grafik: Medikamenten-Liste – Vorlage zum Ausdrucken und Selbstausfüllen

Medikamenten-Liste – Vorlage zum Ausdrucken und Selbstausfüllen (interaktiv)

Apart from prescription drugs it’s also important to write down any non-prescription drugs, including herbal products and dietary supplements. Those products can also interact with medication. The list also includes drugs that you don’t take orally but use in a different way, such as sprays or eye drops.

You can put together your medication list on your own or get some help from someone else. It’s also important for family members or caregivers to know about your medication.

Since October 2016, people with statutory health insurance in Germany are under certain conditions entitled to have their doctor put together a concise medication plan for them. These conditions are met if the following apply:

  • You need three or more prescription drugs.
  • The drugs are systemic, meaning they work throughout the body.
  • The drugs are prescribed to be taken for at least four weeks.

The medication schedule includes both the prescribed medications and all other medicine. It is has a standard design and includes personal details such as your name and birthday, as well as the following information:

  • Name of the medicine: Active ingredient and trade name
  • Dosage and dosage form, for example: 100 mg tablet
  • When the drug is to be used, for example: mornings and evenings: 1 tablet
  • Any other special notes such as: Keep refrigerated
  • Reason for using the drug, for example: High blood pressure, pain, or iron deficiency

What can you do to remember to take the medication?

It may help to combine your medication with daily routines. Putting a reminder note or the package of medicine next to your toothbrush could help you remember to take your medicine if you always have to take it at the same time you brush your teeth.

Putting notes on the refrigerator door or somewhere else that you frequently pass by is another good way of reminding yourself. If you organize your day using a calendar on your phone, you can set it to remind you with a notification, a ring tone or vibration.

Some people prefer counting on someone else to remind them to take their medication – for example a family member or a nurse who regularly comes to see them.

What could help me to use long-term medications safely?

All medications have an expiration date. If you check the date every once in a while, you can be certain that the medicine is not expired and remember to get a new package in time. This is especially important before a vacation or longer travels. If you use special medication containers, be careful when refilling them so that you don’t confuse different medications.

If you do run out of medication, it’s not a good idea to fall back on other people’s medicine, like your partner’s “heart pills.” These medications may not contain the active substances that you need. And the risk of side effects is also greater because the dose might not be right for you, or you might not tolerate some of the other substances. So it’s a better idea to go to your doctor or a pharmacy and ask them.

One thing that is true not only for long-term medication: If you feel that your medication might be causing a problem, it is important to talk to your doctor or pharmacist about it. And when starting a new treatment, you should let your doctor know if you’ve ever had an allergic reaction to an active ingredient or had serious side effects. You should also inform your pharmacist about this when you buy over-the-counter medications.

You shouldn’t buy medication from dubious sources on the internet, especially prescription drugs. They may be counterfeit and contaminated with harmful substances or ineffective. Unfamiliar side effects or symptoms of the condition coming back despite the medication can be an initial hint this might be the case.

Lastly, safe usage of medication also means not stopping them the instant you feel better. For example, if you stop taking before using up the prescribed amount, you may have a relapse.

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IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

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Please note that we do not provide individual advice on matters of health. You can read about where to find help and support in Germany in our information “How can I find self-help groups and information centers?

Updated on August 10, 2017
Next planned update: 2021

Authors/Publishers:

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

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