America's "Other Drug Problem" -- Medication Adherence

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  • 01/21/2014

Some snippets from the National Council on Patient Information and Education’s report, Accelerating Progress in Prescription Medicine Adherence: The Adherence Action Agenda: A National Action Plan to Address America’s “Other Drug Problem”

At the same time that medical science has transformed HIV and many cancers into treatable conditions and significantly reduced the burden of chronic diseases like diabetes, many Americans are not benefiting from these treatment advances due to the persistent problem of poor prescription medicine adherence—a pervasive problem the leads to unnecessary disease progression, disease complications, a lower quality of life, preventable deaths, avoidable medical spending and lost work productivity.

Based on the latest estimates, half of the estimated 187 million Americans who take one or more prescription medicines—or up to 93.5 million patients—do not take these drugs as prescribed. In fact, studies show that 20% to 30% of prescriptions are never filled by patients, while 50%–60% of medications to treat chronic disease are not taken as prescribed. In terms of the toll in morbidity and mortality, lack of medication adherence is associated with poorer health outcomes, resulting in approximately 125,000 preventable deaths a year and many as 40% of nursing home admissions in people with type 2 diabetes. From the standpoint of the cost to the economy, new research estimates that $105 billion is wasted annually on medication therapy nonadherence of which 69%—or $72.5 billion—is spent on hospitalizations. Other findings project that poor medicine adherence, along with suboptimal prescribing, drug administration, and diagnosis, costs the health care system an estimated $290 billion per year in avoidable medical spending and lost work productivity, translating into 13 percent of total health care expenditures.

The future state of medication adherence will be affected by the move towards a patient-centered health care system through implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), including efforts to reduce avoidable hospital readmissions, which is driving innovative approaches to medication management.


NCPIE’s Adherence Action Agenda advocates for an increased focus on the overlooked challenge of multiple chronic conditions, where the need for patient adherence is most acute, and lays out these ten policy and programmatic solutions to improve medication adherence:

1.              Establish medicine adherence as a priority goal of all federal and state efforts designed to reduce the burden of multiple chronic conditions. Because patient adherence is not viewed as an essential element of government initiatives to reduce the burden of multiple chronic conditions, the report calls for adherence to be integrated throughout the range of efforts now underway through a new HHS Multiple Conditions Strategic Framework to improve health systems change and facilitate new research efforts.

2.              Establish the role of the patient navigator within the care team to help patients with multiple chronic conditions navigate the health care system and take their prescription medicines as prescribed. Building on the patient navigator model now used in hospitals and cancer clinics nationwide, the action plan advocates for pairing patients treated for multiple chronic conditions with specially trained adherence navigators who will, in collaboration with patients and caregivers, obtain the patient’s medical records, create an accurate medication list, set up medication counseling as needed, schedule timely follow-up physician visits, and facilitate communication between the patient and his or her different physicians.

3.              Promote clinical management approaches that are tailored to the specific needs and circumstances of individuals with multiple chronic conditions. Since patients with multiple chronic conditions differ in the severity of their illnesses, prognosis, and functional status, the report encourages health professionals to adopt the American Geriatric Society’s guiding principles for treating older adults with three or more diseases, which calls for eliciting and incorporating patient preferences and choosing therapies that optimize benefits and minimize the harm for older patients.

4.              Incentivize the entire health care system to incorporate adherence education and medication support as part of routine care for MCC patients. With research showing that the interactions between patients and their healthcare providers affect how well patients manage their chronic conditions, the report advocates for an expanded investment in patient/provider education and engagement tools to help clinicians implement best practices for medication adherence and counsel their patients on the importance of following treatment plans.

5.              Eliminate the barriers that impede the ability of patients with multiple chronic conditions to refill their prescription medicines. One of the reasons patients fail to refill their prescriptions is the need to pick up prescriptions at different times and sometimes at different pharmacies, requiring numerous trips. T o reduce these obstacles, stakeholders support implementing the “pharmacy home” model, which gives patients a single pharmacy point of contact for filling prescriptions, and adopting refill synchronization, which allows patients to fill different prescriptions at one time and therefore, reduce the number of visits they must make to the pharmacy.

6.              Reduce the cost-sharing barriers for patients by lowering or eliminating patient copayments for prescription medicines used to treat the most common chronic diseases. The report makes clear that the cost of medications for some patients is a barrier to filling their prescriptions and taking their medicines as prescribed and advocates adopting policies that will reduce the out-of-pocket costs for medications, especially for patients on multiple prescriptions for chronic conditions.

7.               Accelerate the adoption of new health information technologies that promote medication adherence. Because significant innovations in health technology have the potential to improve the flow of timely and complete information on medicine use between patients and providers, the report calls for the swift adoption of new standards for using electronic health records, incentivizing providers to use health information technology to identify patients at risk for medication misuse, and the expanded use of electronic reminders and personal health records to improve medication adherence.

8.              Establish medication adherence as a measure for the accreditation of healthcare professional educational programs. Currently, the nation’s medical residency programs are moving towards an outcomes-based accreditation system, where medical residents will be evaluated on the basis of required core competencies, including interpersonal skills and communication. From the standpoint of medication adherence, this represents an opportunity to integrate medication management and e-prescribing into the curriculum of medical residency programs and paves the way for establishing medicine adherence skills as core competencies within the curricula of schools of pharmacy, nursing, and other allied health professions and as an accreditation measure.

9.              Address multiple chronic conditions and optimal medication management approaches in treatment guidelines. Clinical practice guidelines typically focus on managing a specific chronic condition and do not take into account the presence of multiple chronic conditions. The report advocates the accelerated development of updated treatment guidelines where information is included on the most common comorbidities clustering with the incident chronic condition, this can start with the most common combinations of multiple chronic conditions, called dyads and triads, which have already been identified by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

10.          Stimulate rigorous research on treating people with multiple chronic conditions, including focused research on medication adherence to promote the safe and appropriate use of different medicines in this patient population. There is a paucity of evidence-based data on how to treat patients with two or more concurrent diseases who are taking drugs developed and tested in people who have a single condition. Accordingly, the report supports incorporating medicine adherence throughout the research agenda for multiple chronic conditions and advocates for increasing the budget for HHS research efforts examining the best ways to treat the most prevalent clusters of concurrent diseases. 

Because the stakes are so high, the report lays out a new Adherence Action Agenda to coalesce stakeholders around the common goal of improving patient adherence to reduce the burden of chronic disease. Ultimately involving the support and active participation of many constituencies—the federal government, state and local government agencies, professional societies and healthcare practitioners, health educators and patient advocates—it is hoped that this report will serve as a catalyst for action and provide a blueprint for accelerating progress.

This is thoughtful and actionable plan and the complete report is worth a careful read and candid debate.


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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