Medication Adherence Challenges and Helpers

Neil Skolnik, MD, and Christopher Notte, MD


November 17, 2020

Medication adherence remains a truly challenging issue. For most chronic diseases, up to 20%-30% of the pills that are prescribed are not taken. In the case of inhalers for asthma and COPD, patients miss over half of the prescribed doses.

There are many things that contribute to the problem of poor adherence, but people often just simply forget. Thankfully, there are tools designed to help remind patients of what they need to take and when. A survey of apps developed to help patients remember to take their medicines found more than 700 available in Apple and Android app stores.1 Most apps focus on medication alerts, reminders, and medication logs.2 A recent review showed that apps have some – yet limited – effectiveness in increasing adherence, with patient self-reported improvements of 7%-40%.3

Another perhaps more promising area of improving adherence involves high-tech advances in the way medications can be taken. Inhalers are a primary target as they are complicated devices. A patient has to breathe in at the correct time after the inhaler is actuated, and the inhaler works optimally only if the rate of inhalation is sufficient to carry the medication into the lungs.

A number of companies have developed attachments for inhalers (and even inhalers themselves) that can record when the medication is taken through a Bluetooth connection to a patient’s smartphone. These can also assess inspiratory flow. Reminders to take the medication are built into the app, and those reminders disappear if the medication is taken. Patients can receive feedback about the quality of their timing and inspiratory rate to maximize medication delivery to the lungs.4

We learned long ago that it is difficult to take medications three to four times a day, so extended-release tablets were developed to reduce the frequency to once or twice a day. A great deal of work is now being done behind the scenes to develop medications that decrease the need for patients to remember to take their medications. The best examples of this are the long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) devices, specifically IUDs and Nexplanon. Compared with traditional oral contraceptives that need to be taken daily, LARCs reduce the rate of pregnancy by five- to tenfold.

We also now have medications for osteoporosis that can be taken monthly, or even annually. When bisphosphonates were first developed for osteoporosis prevention, they needed to be taken daily. Then a weekly bisphosphonate was developed. Now there is a once-monthly oral bisphosphonate, Ibandronate, and even a once yearly IV bisphosphonate.

Exciting developments have also occurred in the management of diabetes. We may be tempted to take for granted how once-daily long-acting insulin, which releases insulin slowly over the course of a day, has revolutionized the diabetic treatment since its Food and Drug Administration approval in 2000. Yet progress did not end there. The first GLP-1 receptor agonist for diabetes was approved in 2005 and was a twice-a-day medicine. Shortly afterward, a daily GLP-1 was approved, and now there are three once-weekly GLP-1 receptor agonists.

Several pharmaceutical manufacturers are now working on a once-weekly insulin,5 as well as an implantable GLP-1 receptor agonist that will need to be replaced every 6-12 months.6 Imagine your patient coming in once a year to replace his or her potent glucose lowering medication – one that offers a low incidence of hypoglycemia, maintains glucose control all year long, and requires no adherence to a complicated medication regimen.

Similar technology is being used to develop a once-yearly anti-HIV prophylactic medication delivery system.7 This could help prevent the spread of HIV in areas of the world where it may be difficult for people to take daily medications.7

The many technological advances we have described may help us reduce our likelihood of missing a dose of a medication. We are hopeful that progress in this area will continue, and that one day medication adherence will require even less effort from patients than it does today.

Notte is a family physician and chief medical officer of Abington (Pa.) Hospital–Jefferson Health. Follow him on Twitter (@doctornotte). Dr. Skolnik is professor of family and community medicine at Sidney Kimmel Medical College, Philadelphia, and associate director of the family medicine residency program at Abington Hospital–Jefferson Health. They have no conflicts related to the content of this piece.


1. Tabi K et al. Mobile apps for medication management: Review and analysis. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2019 Sep 7(9):13608.

2. Park JYE et al. Mobile phone apps targeting medication adherence: Quality assessment and content analysis of user reviews. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2019 Jan 31;7(1):e11919.

3. Pérez-Jover V et al. Mobile apps for increasing treatment adherence: Systematic review. J Med Internet Res. 2019;21(6):e12505. doi: 10.2196/12505.

4. 4 Smart inhalers that could be lifesaving for people living with asthma & COPD. MyTherapy, July 11, 2019.

5. Rosenstock J et al. Once-weekly insulin for type 2 diabetes without previous insulin treatment. N Engl J Med. 2020 Sep 22. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa2022474.

6. GLP-1 agonists: From 2 daily injections to 1 per week and beyond. DiaTribe, Jan. 10, 2018.

7. Long-acting HIV prevention tools., July 20, 2019.


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