Managing medication for long-term conditions

Photo of a patient with a pill box
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Many people need medication on a permanent basis. But it can be difficult to keep using medication over a long period of time, especially if you need several different drugs. A number of tools and strategies can help here.

It can be difficult to keep taking medications every day on a regular basis. Various things can help here. These include:

  • Regularly talking with your doctor or pharmacist to learn more about the drugs and how to use them, for instance, and perhaps be given written information to take home with you
  • Packaging or containers that make it clear exactly when and how the medications are supposed to be used
  • Electronic reminders to take your medication – like an alarm on your phone

Studies have not yet reliably shown whether these approaches are actually useful, or how effective they are. There are also no studies observing their effects over several years.

How can information help when taking long-term medication?

It isn't always easy to do things like swallow large tablets or use an insulin pen properly. If you're having trouble using the medication, your doctor’s office or your pharmacy can tell you

  • whether more information about the correct use is available,
  • whether the drug can be used 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's not 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 having some side effects if the benefits outweigh the harm – especially if the medication can stop a more serious condition from progressing.

When deciding whether or not to use a medication, it’s important to know what your options are – and what might happen if you don’t have treatment at all. It can be a good idea 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 support group and ask for information.

How can you keep track of your medication?

It's very important to keep track of using your medicine properly – especially if you need several different medications. It is usually not easy to tell how and when to take the medication, or whether you have forgotten a dose, just by looking at the package. Special containers called dispensers or pill boxes (available from pharmacies) help you to see these things at a glance.

The medications you need for one whole week are sorted into small compartments in your pill box – one for each day of the week, with sections for the morning, midday and evening. So if you need to take drug A three times a day, for instance, one tablet is put into each of these sections. If you also need to take two tablets of medication B in the evening, then two of those tablets are placed into the evening section.

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.

Illustration: Medication list – Form for printing and filling out

Medication list – Form for printing and filling out (interactive)

Apart from writing down prescription drugs, it’s also important to include any drugs that you buy without a prescription, including herbal products and dietary supplements. Those products can also interact with medication. The list should also include drugs that you don’t take by mouth 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 sometimes entitled to have their doctor put together a concise medication schedule for them. This is the case if

  • you need three or more prescription drugs,
  • the drugs are systemic, meaning they work throughout the whole body, and
  • 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 has a standard structure and includes personal details such as your name and birthday, as well as the following information:

  • Name of the medicine: Active ingredient (the drug responsible for the effect) and trade name
  • Dose (how much) and dosage form, for example: 100 mg tablet
  • When the drug is to be used, for instance: 1 tablet in the morning and 1 tablet in the evening
  • Any special instructions, such as: Keep refrigerated
  • Reason for using the drug, for example: High blood pressure, pain, or iron deficiency

What can help you remember to take the medication?

It may help to combine your medication with daily routines. If, for instance, you always take medication around the time when you brush your teeth, putting a reminder note or the package next to your toothbrush could help you remember to take it.

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 you 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 particularly important before going on long trips. If you use special medication containers, be careful when refilling them so that you don’t get the different medications mixed up.

If you do run out of medication, it’s not a good idea to use other people’s medicine instead, like your partner’s “heart pills.” These medications may not contain the exact drugs 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 other drugs. If you can't see a doctor right away, it's better to call the doctor's office or ask at a pharmacy.

One thing that's not only true for long-term medication: If you feel that your medication might be causing a problem, it's important to talk to your doctor or pharmacist about it. Before starting a treatment with new medications, you should let your doctor know if you’ve ever had an allergic reaction to a particular drug or had serious side effects. It's also important to tell your pharmacist about this whenever you buy over-the-counter medications.

You shouldn’t buy medication from dubious sources on the internet, especially prescription drugs. They may be counterfeit (fake copies) that are contaminated with harmful substances or don't work. Signs that this might be the case include unfamiliar side effects or symptoms coming back despite using the medication.

Lastly, using medication safely also means not stopping the treatment as soon as you feel better. For example, if you stop taking before using up the prescribed amount, your symptoms may return.

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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 24, 2021
Next planned update: 2024

Authors/Publishers:

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

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