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Help for Managing Multiple Medications

Dealing with multiple meds each day—for you or a loved one—can be challenging. But it’s not uncommon. So what can you do to make it easier—and safer? A Johns Hopkins expert shares the tips you need.

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If you’re having difficulty paying for your medications, don’t hesitate to ask your doctor about lower-cost options such as generic drugs. “Taking multiple medications doesn’t have to be expensive,” notes Jessica Merrey, PharmD, clinical pharmacy specialist at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. “If you’re surprised by the price of a drug when you pick it up at the pharmacy, don’t walk away. Ask the pharmacist to talk with your doctor about other options or guide you to prescription-drug assistance programs.”

If dealing with multiple medications is a daily challenge for you or a loved one, you’re not alone.  Nearly 40 percent of older adults take five or more prescription drugs. The best approach: “When you’re using several medications, be proactive,” says Jessica Merrey, PharmD, clinical pharmacy specialist at The Johns Hopkins Hospital and certified geriatric pharmacist. “Taking medications as directed by your doctor, getting refills on time, and staying alert to side effects and interactions all help keep you healthy.”

These strategies can make managing multiple medications easier—and safer.

Fill your prescriptions at one pharmacy. This makes getting prescription refills simpler—so you’re more likely to take medications as directed. It also helps your pharmacist protect you from drug interactions. “The risk for side effects and drug interactions rises with each additional medication you take,” Merrey explains. “Using one pharmacy keeps your medication records in one place, so the pharmacist can evaluate your risk and work with your doctor to avoid potential problems.”

Use a pill dispenser or other reminder system. “A pill box with compartments for each day of the week—and for morning, noon and night if you take medications several times a day—lets you know at a glance whether you’ve taken your medicines yet,” Merrey says. “Your pharmacist may be able to fill your pill dispenser for you.”

You can also keep a medication schedule to remind you what to take, and when. (Post it on your refrigerator or inside a kitchen cabinet door.) “Make taking your medications part of your daily routine. Try setting a timer on your phone, watch or alarm clock,” suggests Merrey. “You might always take them after you brush your teeth in the morning, for example.”

Get prescriptions refilled early. Running out could allow health conditions to worsen. Check expiration dates frequently and discard any medicines that are out of date. Your pharmacist may even be able to help you get multiple medications on the same refill schedule so that you can make fewer trips to the drugstore, Merrey says.

Make a list—and update it regularly. Keep a list of the medications you take—with the name of the drug, the dose, how often you take it and why. Put a copy in your medical files at home, carry one in your wallet to show your doctor, and give a copy to a loved one or friend in case you have a medical emergency. “Don’t assume all of your health care providers know about all of your medications,” Merrey says. “A list is essential. It can also help your doctor look for the sources of any side effects or interactions you may be having.”

Get a yearly “brown bag” review. Toss everything you take (prescriptions, over-the-counter remedies and supplements) into a bag and take it to your annual checkup for a review. “With age, the body absorbs and breaks down medications differently. Your doctor may change the dose of something you’ve used for a long time,” she says.

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