Living with multiple health problems

Dealing with multiple medicines

The more health problems people have, the more medicines they might be using. “Medicines” include tablets, capsules, liquids, creams, inhalers, eye drops, and injections (e.g. insulin for diabetes). The people we spoke to were typically taking multiple medicines; some were taking as many as 30 tablets a day. Some medicines, such as inhalers or pain relievers were only taken ‘as needed,’ whereas other medicines had to be taken regularly once, twice or three times a day. In addition to their prescribed medicines, some people also took vitamins or food supplements that they bought over the counter. Not everyone knew which of their medicines were treating which symptom or condition.

Living with having to take multiple medicines can have a similar impact on how people feel about themselves to that of living with multiple health conditions (see ‘The personal impact of multiple health problems’). Both Madelon and Andrew seemed to view taking lots of medicines as a natural consequence of having health conditions in the context of ageing and didn’t seem bothered by it. Rosemary only wants to take drugs that her doctor advises her to.
None of these people seemed to be bothered too much by the quantity of medicines they were taking and managing medicines did not seem to have a major impact on their lives. However, medicines did cause others difficulties. For example, some people with diabetes have to regularly test their blood and then adjust the dose of insulin accordingly. Lottie found that the work involved in managing both diabetes and epilepsy (among other conditions) had reduced spontaneity in her life. Mohammed, along with other people we interviewed, was concerned about the potential side effects of prescribed medicines (see ‘Side effects of medicines’ for more about this topic).
Unsurprisingly, people made judgements about whether medicines were worth taking or not according to whether they were seen to work (see ‘Different views on medicines’). Lottie had tried a number of epilepsy treatments since being diagnosed but had not yet found a medicine that completely stopped her seizures. It was difficult for her to judge whether the epilepsy medicines were having any effect or not. Nigel found that adding a new medicine to his prescription might impact upon his blood sugar level, which would have knock-on effects on his diabetes treatments (see ‘Interaction between different symptoms, conditions and medicines’ for more information).
Some people who had been on a large number of medicines for a long time, wondered whether they should still be taking some of them, especially when new medicines had been added along the way. Whether or not individual tablets were thought to be providing any benefit was important to people. A detailed assessment of an individual’s prescribed drugs is called a ‘medications review,’ and we found that such reviews had been triggered by doctors, pharmacists and by the actions of patients themselves.
When people talked about the medicines they were prescribed, they referred to a sort of trade-off between the positive effects of the tablets and perceived unwanted side effects. In general, people seemed willing to tolerate side effects if a medicine was having its desired effect, although in the context of multiple health conditions it was not always clear whether symptoms experienced by people were caused by illnesses or their treatments.

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