What is Medication Adherence?


April 12th, 2018

Natalie Stein, MS, Public Health

Prescription drugs are ubiquitous in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, reports that 48.9% of people said they used at least one prescription drug in the past 30 days. Nearly 1 in four people, or 23.1%, used 3 or more, and 11.9%, or nearly 1 in 8 people, used at least five prescription drugs in the past 30 days.

These drugs are addressing some of the most common health complaints and conditions in the U.S. Nearly 1 in 10 patients used a prescription analgesic (painkiller) recently. Many of the other most commonly used prescription drugs were used for chronic disease management.

  • Antihyperlipidemic agents for high cholesterol.

  • Beta-blockers and ACE inhibitors for heart disease and high blood pressure.

  • Diuretics for heart disease, kidney disease, and high blood pressure.

  • Antidiabetic medications.

  • Antidepressants.

Prescription medications can save lives and improve quality of life when used properly, but they are not always as effective as they could be. That is not because of poor medical care or problems with the drugs themselves. Rather, there is a major problem with medication non-adherence.

Improving medication adherence could save lives, improve health, and lower healthcare costs. To reduce medication non-adherence, it is important to understand why it happens and how harmful it is. Solutions can include educating patients, reducing prescription drug costs, and using technology such as smartphone apps designed to improve adherence.

What Is Medication Adherence?

The definition of “medication adherence” can vary depending on the context, but the term refers to patients taking their prescription medications as prescribed. In research studies, researchers may measure medication adherence by seeing what percentage of the pills that patient has used over the study period. Proper dosage and timing are also part of medication adherence.

So what is medication non-adherence? These are some of the ways a patient can be non-adherent with prescription medications.

  • Taking the wrong dose.

  • Taking the prescription drug more or fewer times per day.

  • Not filling prescriptions on time or ever.

  • Taking the prescription on an empty stomach when it should be taken with food, or vice versa.

  • Taking the prescription at the same time as another medication or supplement that could interact.

Prescriptions are given by doctors to help patients get better, feel better, or prevent complications from their conditions, and medication non-adherence can lower the effectiveness of prescription medications. Why, then, do patients not always adhere? There are many possible reasons for non-adherence.

  • The patient does not understand the instructions for taking the medication, or it is too complicated to continue the regimen, especially when the patient has multiple prescriptions.

  • The medication is unaffordable due to high cost or limited drug coverage, or the patient prefers not to spend money on it.

  • The medication is inconvenient to purchase or use.

  • The medication has side effects or the risk of side effects, such as headaches, fatigue, muscle aches, gastrointestinal distress, and more. People who experience side effects are 3.5 times less likely to be adherent to their medication instructions.

  • The patient does not consider herself a “pill person,” or taking pills makes the patient remember that she has a health condition.

  • Patients can dislike the thought of medications as being “unnatural” chemicals.

  • The medication is for a disease that does not cause early symptoms, such as hypertension.

  • The patient was not home, ran out, or was too busy to take the medication.

Lark health coach can assist with adherence to the medication regimen in a number of ways.

  • Reminding patients to take their medications: when and how much.

  • Connecting patients to healthcare providers when needed.

  • Educating patients on the importance of medication adherence.

  • Tracking patient adherence so patients can see how well they have been following doctor’s orders.

In addition, Lark provides coaching to encourage healthy behaviors, including weight management, nutritious eating, getting active, and getting enough sleep. These behaviors can all support general well-being as well as increase patient self-efficacy in taking charge of health and staying adherent to medications to stay as healthy as possible.