“Drugs don’t work in patients who don’t take them.”

This well-known quote from C. Everett Coop, former US Surgeon General, reflects a simple, yet empowering message. Considering that 30 percent of Canadians between 65 to 74 years of age are taking at least five prescription medications, but only half of them take their medication in the way that it was prescribed, makes you wonder why so many of us are opting out of the benefits associated with drugs.

Perhaps we forget how and when to take our pills? Or, maybe there are so many vials that we can’t keep track? Sometimes, we just forget to take medications if we are feeling great. That’s common with high blood pressure treatments – you can’t feel it when your blood pressure rises. What we tend to overlook is what happens if we do not take our medications – landing in the hospital because blood sugar levels are dangerously high, or dealing with a life-changing event such as a stroke as a result of uncontrolled high blood pressure.

medications help you live a longer, healthier life

Most of us agree that medications help you live a longer, healthier life. But, maybe you don’t always take them in the right amount. Taking too much could mean a trip to your doctor or even your local emergency department. Too little? Well, you likely won’t get the results that you and your doctor are looking for, and it may put you at risk of other health problems. In a Canadian study of emergency department visits, 12 percent of visits were due to adverse drug-related events, with almost 28 percent of these due to non-adherence – failure to take a medication as prescribed.

So, is there a solution? Sure, your doctor and pharmacist do their best to remind you why it’s important to take your medications, and they may even offer you a “dosing reminder” tool to help you. Specialized pill bottles with indicator toggles for each day of the week, pill bottles outfitted with digital timers and seven-day pill boxes have all been created with the goal of improving adherence, but often, these tools are not quite enough.

This is where digital technology can help.

Mobile health applications (“apps”) have been designed to teach you about your medications, collect information about how you use them, and remind you to take them or to refill your prescription – in other words, to offer you a fresh take on how you manage your medications. Some apps can also be linked to devices such as blood pressure cuffs to help monitor the effect of medications, diet or exercise.

The health apps make it “easier to track and organize our data in one place, such as on an iPad,” says Dr. Kelly Grindrod, Assistant Professor at the University of Waterloo School of Pharmacy. Her research focuses on how digital technologies can improve medication management. She is hopeful that “in the coming years, we’ll also see more Canadians having access to their own health records, such as diagnostic imaging, lab results or lists of dispensed medications through patient portals.”

health apps make it easier to track and organize our data in one place

As you comb through the sea of apps available on your mobile device, consider the features that could make your experience more favourable:

  • Security features (e.g., password protection, data encryption).
  • Ability to accommodate multiple users (i.e., your family members).
  • Reminders that do not require Wi-Fi connections to work.
  • A companion website that can sync information to your mobile device.
  • A scheduling function (e.g., for more complex schedules).
  • The ability to enter, search and select medications.
  • Medication reminders – dose, refill and expiry alerts.
  • Recording of doses taken.
  • The ability to share information with family members and healthcare providers (usually via email or printing of your data).
  • No cost to you (for basic functions).

Many apps are created or supported by reputable health organizations, enhancing their credibility.

For example, MyMedRec is a Canadian app, backed by the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Pharmacists Association, that stores health records and medication information for you and others in your family. It allows you to schedule prescription refills and to record when you took your medications. Medisafe helps to remind and motivate you to take your medications. The “virtual pillbox” helps you visualize which medication is due, and when it is due. This app encourages you to enlist the help of others by inviting a friend or family member to be a Medfriend, who can remind you to take your medications. MedHelper offers alarm reminders to take your pills or refill them, and allows you to email information to caregivers and healthcare providers.

Beyond apps

Other technologies that are primarily used in research today give us a sneak peek at what may be the future of medication management. Imagine taking a pill that transmits information to your doctor about when you took it. Too “Big Brother” for you? Maybe, but this type of “digital ingestion tracking” can offer powerful insights in research or in the care of people with serious mental illness. Janssen’s iSTEP (Integrated Smart Trial and Engagement Platform) technology includes a blister pack and app that work together to inform the user how and when to take the medication. Smart wireless pill bottles can sense when medication was removed and provide alerts and reminders via text, telephone, and lights and sounds on the actual bottle.

If you take medications regularly, sticking to your regimen is essential for helping you live your best life – but we all forget sometimes. The good news? A growing number of digital medication management solutions offer new ways to help keep us on track, so researching what is right for you is time well spent.