Varying Appearance of Pills Often Keeps Patients from Taking Important Medication

Patients must develop habit of checking accuracy of medication each time it is dispensed

Nestor HSDAYTON, Ohio (June 8, 2015) – Individuals who have been taking a medication for months or even years often become accustomed to its look, smell and even taste. So imagine the confusion when its appearance suddenly changes from one refill to the next.

The right thing to do would be to immediately contact the pharmacy where it was dispensed and make sure it’s the correct medication, but individuals typically don’t. Instead, studies have shown that many patients let confusion over a medication’s new look or dislike for its smell or taste keep them from taking it. 

Medication adherence – or the ability to take medication as prescribed – is a growing problem in America and a medication’s changing appearance contributes to this troubling trend. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), non-adherence to medication can be attributed to half of all treatment failures and 125,000 deaths annually. A patient’s decision to stop taking medication for a period of time can have a significant impact upon the treatment of chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes as well as conditions like epilepsy.

“There are people who will not take medication because it looks different from one refill to another and in this day and age that can happen a lot given the amount of generic medications on the market,” said Anne Nestor, MD, a family physician with Trenton Family Medicine.

Generic versions of brand-name prescription drugs may have the same medicinal effect on patients, but their appearance is often quite different. That’s because the U.S. trademark laws don’t allow generic drugs to look exactly the same as another drug already on the market, according to the Generic Pharmaceutical Association.

The size, shape, aroma, color and inscription on the pill may vary depending on what the pharmacy has in stock. For example, the antidepressant brand-name drug Prozac has ten different generic equivalent products, but each is different in appearance, according to the Institute for Safe Medication Practices. A pill’s appearance may seem like a small change, but its effect on medication adherence seems to be significant.

A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that patients who take generic drugs that differ in color are 50 percent more likely to stop taking the drug, leading to possible negative reactions. Researchers conducted the study by using a large national database of filled prescriptions. When a gap was discovered in a patient’s use of a drug, they looked to see if the previous two prescriptions filled were different in shape and color. They found that prescription refills were interrupted when the pill’s color changed.

“I think the best thing for a patient to do if they are confused about how their medication looks is to talk to the pharmacist,” said Dr. Nestor, a Premier HealthNet physician. “They are the ones who dispense the medication and will know best if it is the right one.”

Dr. Nestor provides other important steps that individuals can take to reduce the risk of inconsistent medication use:

Check the facts – Take the time to look at medication before leaving a pharmacy. Check the medication’s packaging to verify the patient’s name, address and date of birth. This will ensure that the medication purchased belongs to the right person. 

Look at the medication – Open the bottle and look at the medication to see if it has the same appearance as previous prescriptions. If there is concern about its appearance then consult the pharmacist. Also, the medication’s label often describes what the medication should look like including its color, size, shape and possible inscriptions (such as numbers).

“If possible, it’s important to take the small amount of time it requires to quickly check the facts of a medication. Once you take the medication out of the pharmacy, you can’t take it back for a refund or to exchange it for another,” Dr. Nestor said. “Also, patients need to know that they have options. If there is anything prohibiting them from taking a medication, they should talk to their physician.”

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