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7 Tips for Managing Multiple Medications

(Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. These are common sense, practical tips that I use for managing my medications and these tips are not intended to be medical advice. Please discuss your medications with your doctor and/or pharmacist.)

My late father-in-law kept his pill bottles in a vintage mixing bowl on the kitchen table. He didn’t read the labels and he didn’t know what they were for. It wasn’t until his health began failing and he was falling more often that he began to request I bring him his medicines to him where he sat in his easy-lift recliner. I found he was only taking one of the medications as his doctor directed. It took some sorting out with his doctor to adjust his medications and get his symptoms under control.

My rather healthy mother, in her 80s, has a system of pill boxes of varied sizes for all her medications, vitamins and supplements. She fills her three pill boxes carefully at her kitchen table. It takes her a while, but her mind is focused as she does it. Large amber fish oil capsules are kept in the refrigerator and there’s a box in her kitchen with vitamins and supplements and over-the-counter meds. For her general good health, she’s doing quite a few things right. She’s following the directions on the labels. If she misses a dose she understands what to do. If she suspects a side effect, she reports it to her doctor’s nurse. The only flaw I see is that her refill dates are scattered and she makes quite a few trips to the pharmacy. My mother seems to use many of the ideas I also use in my system for managing my medications.

My late father-in-law and mother are like many aging seniors tasked with managing their medications at home. But it is not just a senior issue. My doctors do not follow me home to monitor how I manage medication routine. I take medications to treat a number of conditions, with most of them being psychiatric meds for managing my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and bipolar symptoms including mood stabilization, psychosis, PTSD symptoms and anxiety. It has taken years to find the right combination of lifestyle, therapy and prescription drugs that are working for me at this particular time in my life.

I have not had a major manic episode in nearly six years. I’ve heeded the warning labels and followed directions and rarely miss a dose. Taking my medications is as routine as brushing my teeth. Where it might be easy to overlook one medication in a stash of 11 or to run out because I forgot to call in a refill, I’ve found a system that works that keeps me from the anxiety I once had about all those little orange bottles.

Here are my seven tips for managing multiple prescription medications.

Perhaps they will be useful in developing your own home routine as you work with your doctor(s) in addressing your symptoms and conditions:

7 Tips for Managing Multiple Prescription Medications:

1. Communicate with your doctor and pharmacist.

Ask questions. Know as much as you can about what you are taking. Do not
be embarrassed about having to ask the same question multiple times. (I am not a medical expert. There are many websites that suggest questions to ask). Successful medication management begins in the doctor’s office.

2. Have one regular pharmacy.

This may not always be possible, but I am grateful I have a regular pharmacy that has all my information on file, including allergies and prescription history. My medical providers are able to send in their prescriptions directly from their office during my clinic visits, eliminating the need to physically bring in a written prescription (excluding narcotics, which are rare for me to use). It saves time and the pharmacist can immediately flag any potential harmful drug interactions.

3. Use automated refill and reminder options.

I highly recommend using a pharmacy that offers this option. It has simplified my life and saved so much time and trouble and eliminated running out of medications. I receive text messages to remind me it’s time to order refills as well as when they are ready to be picked up. Another thing you can talk to your pharmacist and doctor about is getting your medication refills staged, so they are all refilled near the same date and you don’t have to go into the pharmacy as often. My pharmacy offers automatic refills on some medications. The pharmacy will automatically notify my doctor if there are no refills left on a medication. This assures I never run out of a medication. You might also set an alarm on your phone as a backup reminder and schedule the pharmacy visit into your calendar for a refill pick-up to be treated as important as a clinic visit.

4. Read the labels.

When I get a new bottle of pills, I always read the label, even if it is a familiar medication. To err is human, even in the pharmacy. Ask the pharmacist for large print labels if you have poor eyesight. I pay particular attention to the name of the drug, the dose strength and the directions for how to take it. Some medications are spelled similarly so it is important to be familiar with the name. I personally like to know how to pronounce it and whether it is a generic or brand name medication. Check the side labels, such as the warnings of side effects of dizziness, drowsiness, caution when operating machinery or taking the medication with a full glass of water or with food. I’ve asked my doctors to include on the label what condition the medication is for, which has been very helpful. I keep the most recent copy of the paperwork the pharmacist gives me on the medication uses and side effects, but if you’re a minimalist this information can be found on drug company websites.

5. Consider using a pill box.

This may not be for everyone or for every medication. Here, I am referring to the medications I take on a regular, long term basis. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if this may be a good idea for your situation. Some suggest to always keep medications in their original packaging, which I do for my “as needed” meds. When filling the box I make sure I am clear headed and not likely to be interrupted and have good lighting. I take my time and read each bottle and check the characteristics of the pills I am placing in the box, careful not to put two doses into the same section.

Using a pill box is a part of my Sunday night routine. For me, the best reward of using a pill box is the safety factor. I don’t have to worry about missed or double doses. The second reward, of course, is the time and efficiency and ease for taking my nighttime meds, as I feel I am much less likely to make an error in having them already set for me when I am weary and tired from the day. Again, not all situations may find using a pill box helpful. Other ideas I have tried in the past that have helped include using a medication log or chart and using pill reminder apps and alarms. At this time it seems to create an extra step for me, but for you it may be just the ticket.

6. Make a Go Bag.

I like to contain my prescription pill bottles in a zippered cosmetic bag that hold my bottles on one side and my pill box in the other side. If needed, they are all together and ready to stuff inside my larger purse. Along with my pill box, this is what I travel with, just in case there is a delay. Sometimes your doctors will want you to bring your medications to your appointments. Remember to store your medications out of children’s reach.

7. Keep a list.

If you have a regular pharmacy, you can ask them for a printout of all the medications you are currently taking. You can also get this from your doctor, but you may have multiple doctors, so the pharmacy would have a more complete list. Keeping this in your purse or wallet may be helpful in an emergency, in establishing care with new providers, updating current providers, as well as giving to your emergency contact should the need arise. You might also consider using technology to keep a medication list in a memo note or in your emergency medical information on your cell phone.

I hope these ideas have been helpful for your own medication management routine. Again, work with your own doctors and pharmacist to find the system that is right for your unique needs.

Getty image by 5./15 WEST