Whether on one or several medications, it's important to know...

Whether on one or several medications, it's important to know the name of each drug and for what condition you’re taking it. Credit: iStock

If your daily routine includes taking several prescription medications, you probably know when to take each pill. But it's just as important to know the name of each drug and for what condition you're taking it.

"We have an increasing number of older adults who are taking an increasing number of prescription medications, and the drug regimens get just absolutely crazy," says Michael Wolf, a professor of geriatric medicine at Northwestern University.

Wolf and a team of researchers conducted a study to see if older adults could identify their medications and describe what each one was prescribed for. The researchers arranged study participants' medications in what Wolf calls a "pill lineup." Those who couldn't identify their medication by either name or appearance were more likely to have forgotten to take a pill than those who could name the pill and knew what it was for. "Patients who did not know the name of their medications ultimately are worse off," Wolf says. "It's not only going to lead to worse adherence, but it's going to lead to worse health outcomes."

Wolf says the problem is compounded by the "complexity upon complexity" of taking numerous medications. "Drug regimens have different pills, with generics and brands mixed in, and medication that changes frequently," he says. "Nobody knows what each medication does anymore."

Those who know their medications only by appearance could face problems if they are taking a brand name drug and their insurance company or Medicare changes the prescription to a generic. "Your little white round pill could become an oval yellow pill," Wolf says. "Suddenly, your blood pressure pill may look like your diabetes medication." He says that while a generic medication should work the same as a brand-name version, it will not look the same. "A pharmaceutical company can have a limited time for having a patent on the active ingredient of the medication, but they can have a lifetime patent on what it looks like, the pill shape and color." And even generics of the same medication by different manufacturers may not look alike.

Wolf notes that making the regimen easier can be an impediment to knowing what the medication is for. For example, a sectioned pillbox helps ensure you take your medication daily, but it makes it harder to know what the pill is for because it is no longer in a bottle with a label. "You're taking the pill away from the information," he says. "It's a very anonymous drug regimen that really doesn't allow you to learn it."

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