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Medicine is the best medicine; help patients keep taking it

December 07, 2010 By: Nadia Category: HealthCare, Medicine Advice, Medtipster, Prescription News, Prescription Savings

www.Medtipster.com Source: Boston Globe, 12.3.2010

Patients who don’t take their medications are a well-documented problem in medicine. If doctors are to spot patients who might stop complying with prescriptions, it’s vital to have a fuller understanding of why and how it happens.

As many as 40 to 60 percent of those with chronic conditions like high blood pressure, heart failure, or diabetes don’t take their medicines regularly. The reasons vary – some patients never fill their prescriptions; others feel better and stop their drug regimens; in still other cases, side effects or the burden of too many pills discourage patients from refilling their prescriptions. Whatever the motive, failing to take needed drugs leads to worse health and higher spending, as patients land in the hospital for preventable conditions that cost the health care system hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

But a new study this month in the Annals of Internal Medicine, by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, shines the spotlight on another contributor: Patients not picking up prescriptions that have already been filled.

The analysis, funded by CVS Caremark, looked at over 10 million prescriptions filled over a 3-month span in 2008 and found that 3.3 percent were never picked up. The number seems small, but translates to 110 million abandoned prescriptions per year in the United States. It costs a pharmacy an estimated $5 to $10 to prepare, then return to the shelves, an unclaimed medication, so the authors estimate the problem could be costing more than $500 million a year. CVS Caremark has a clear interest in bringing that number down – but so do patients and doctors.

The problem could worsen as technology evolves: Prescriptions sent electronically were 65 percent more likely to be left behind, probably because they bypass the step of having the patients hand- deliver a slip to the pharmacist. As electronic prescribing continues to take hold nationwide, insurers should be vigilant that prescription fill rates may reflect compliance less accurately than with traditional prescriptions.

Not surprisingly, prescriptions with $40 to $50 copays were the most likely to be abandoned. According to William Shrank, the study’s main author, this means that during economically hard times “even insured patients are experiencing sticker shock, and walking away from the pharmacy, without filling essential medications.”

Doctors are unlikely to know their patients’ copays for drugs, but taking the time to talk about drug costs would help them identify those who might never pick up their prescriptions. Down the road, those extra minutes of chat time at the office become multiple dollars saved at the hospital bedside.

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