Generic pill color changes may affect medication adherance

Close up of two pills and a glass of water on table. iStockphoto

Generic medications that differ in color may make people less likely to want to continue taking them, according to a new study.

Researchers discovered that subjects whose generic prescription medication changed colors from the time they first time they filled the prescription were over 50 percent more likely to stop consuming them.

"Pill appearance has long been suspected to be linked to medication adherence, yet this is the first empirical analysis that we know of that directly links pills' physical characteristics to patients' adherence behavior," principal investigator Dr. Aaron S. Kesselheim, assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmacoeconomics at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, and said in a written statement. "We found that changes in pill color significantly increase the odds that patients will stop taking their drugs as prescribed."

Generic medications make up more than 70 percent of all prescriptions given to patients. While they may not have the same look as the brand-name drug, they are clinically bioequivalent - meaning they have the same intended use and effect.

An estimated 50 to 75 percent of patients do not follow the advice of their health care professionals when taking medication, Kesselheim told CNN. When people skip out or do not use their medication as directed, it could have dire negative financial, social and medical effects.

Researchers looked at patients who were taking anti-epileptic drugs and used a national database of filled prescriptions from 2001 to 2006 to see if and when patients stopped filling their prescriptions. When that point was identified, they checked to see if the prior prescriptions had varied in shape or color before the patient decided to stop taking their medication.

In total, 11,472 patients stopped getting their prescriptions and 50,050 others continued taking their medication. Fifty-three percent of the patients with epilepsy and 27 percent of people taking the same prescriptions for other reasons were more likely to stop taking their pills once the color changed.

"I think we've identified another hurdle to medication adherence and a relatively easy way to fix it," Kesselheim said to the New York Times. "The color of a pill does have clinical relevance."

The study was published on Dec. 31 in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

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