Understanding Medication Compliance

Understanding Medication Compliance

Doctor’s Orders: Why Taking Your Medication as Prescribed Is Important

Not taking your medicine as prescribed can harm your health. Here’s how and why you need to take it the right way.

About one third to one half of Americans do not take their medications as prescribed. Doctors call it “poor medication compliance” or “non-adherence.” It can be costly to both your pocketbook and your health.

What is medication compliance?

Medication adherence or compliance means taking medicine exactly as your doctor prescribes. Your doctor may say you are “noncompliant” if you:

  • Take medicine at the wrong times
  • Take incorrect doses
  • Don’t wait long enough or wait too long between doses
  • Stop your medicine when you “feel better” or for any other reason instead of when your doctor says
  • Don’t refill prescriptions on time

This can take a serious toll on your health.

People of all ages, education and income levels can have trouble taking their medications as directed. People with chronic conditions like diabetes, asthma and heart disease are less likely to take their medicine as prescribed than people with acute illnesses, such as an infection. This is likely because people with chronic diseases often need multiple medicines that they must take long-term:

  • One study found that one in four people with heart disease stopped taking their medicine within six months.
  • An online survey found that one out of five people with diabetes who took the survey said they skipped their medication regularly..
  • Experts estimate that people with chronic diseases only take about half of their prescribed doses of medicine.


Medicine only works when it’s taken as directed. Not doing so is especially risky for people with chronic disease. It can lead to:

  • Poor health. Studies show that people who don’t take their medicine as prescribed are admitted to the hospital more than those who take their medicine as directed.
  • Extra medical costs. Not taking your medicine as prescribed comes with a high price tag. A study of people with diabetes found that those who didn’t take their medications as prescribed spent nearly twice the amount on health care each year than those who did take medications as prescribed.

Tips for compliance

People don’t take their medicine as directed for a number of reasons. It can be confusing to take many different medications. Shots may be painful. Some drugs cause bothersome side effects. Medications can be expensive. But not taking your medications as directed can backfire, which in time can cost you more in dollars and health.

If you or your loved one has trouble taking medicine correctly, talk to your doctor. He or she can offer solutions to common medication barriers:

CostTell your doctor you cannot afford your medicine. He or she may offer generic drugs, free samples or help you find free or low-cost medications.
Side effectsThere are often multiple medications available to treat the one condition. Your doctor can often prescribe a new drug or dosage.
Taking multiple medications  Your doctor may be able to simplify your medication routine. Ask if you can reduce the number of medicines you take, or prescribe a combination medicine.
ForgetfulnessKeeping your medicine schedule straight can be tricky. Use reminders to stay on top of your regimen: Set an alarm on your watch or cell phone. Ask someone to send you text message reminders. Refill a pill organizer daily or weekly. Update a fresh pill checklist each day.
Don’t understand why you need medicationYour doctor or nurse will spell it out for you. Knowing why you need a medicine and what will happen if you don’t take it may make it easier to stick with it.
Don’t know how to take your medsAsk your doctor or the pharmacist when the best time is to take your medicine and if you should take it with food. Your doctor can also give you other educational materials.
More than one doctor prescribingReview your list of medications at each doctor visit. Share this list with all of your doctors at each visit.
DisabilityYour doctor or nurse can suggest devices to help you overcome obstacles, such as trouble drawing up the correct dose of insulin.

Never stop a medicine without first talking to your doctor. Call your doctor for instructions if you take the incorrect dose of medicine or miss a dose.

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