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Medication Compliance: Why Don’t We Take Our Meds?

Medication Compliance: Why Don't We Take Our Meds?I was going to comment on health care expenditures with an article entitled, “How the High Cost of Health is My Fault.” In it, I would briefly outline my experience with mental illness and detail the cost of caring for it, which, at present, includes medication and doctor visits, totals at least $10,500 per year. Much of this cost is borne by an insurance company.

Then I was going to relate the story about how, in the summer of 2002, I chose to stop taking my medicine the way my doctor directed me to take it, and then I stopped taking my medicine at all.

This was a bad choice. As a result, my illness became an emergency.

Nine hours in the ICU, four days in a private room, and two more weeks of hospital care brought a bill that topped $95,000.

The cost of nine years of care was eaten up by just a few weeks of my irresponsibility. That was cost that the health care industry, including my insurance company, would not have had to bear if I had only taken my medicine as directed.

It then seemed easy for me to extend this argument to all patients with any chronic disease. Do what your doctor tells you and your condition should improve, or, at least, be far less likely to worsen. By patients only complying with their prescribed treatment regimens the cost of health care in the United States would go down.

How much? A lot. As a matter of fact, a New England Healthcare Institute study of health care costs in the United States pegged the added cost of care due to patient noncompliance at $290 billion. That’s 15 percent of the country’s total annual health care cost. And a Medco study found that only 50 to 65 percent of patients with chronic conditions adhere to the medication therapy prescribed for them.

It seemed clear. I am, for my lost summer, and everyone else who does not take responsibility for their own treatment, everyone who does not comply with their doctor’s orders, are responsible for the high cost of health care in the United States.

When noncompliant, a person does not take his or her medicine as directed. This often leads to their condition worsening and results in higher costs of doctor visits, emergency room visits, and hospitalizations. On the other hand, medication compliance can significantly reduce these costs.

According to Medco, for every dollar spent on diabetes medication medical cost savings are $7.00, for every dollar spent on high cholesterol medication medical cost savings are $5.10, and savings of $3.98 are found for every dollar spent on prescription medication for high blood pressure. Mental illness costs are surely similar.

So if simply taking one’s medicine can lead to lower total health care costs, why are so many patients not taking their medication as prescribed?

Reasons for noncompliance include side effects, lack of continuing symptoms, and, yes, irresponsibility. But cost may loom largest.

I have always had health insurance. The co-payment for my medicine is $49 per month when I’m stable (it was higher, but one drug went generic). It goes up during rough patches. I’m responsible. I pay it. I’m well. I thought, perhaps I adhere to my treatment regimen because I am so heavily invested in it.

Maybe if everyone paid a larger share of his own health care bill, compliance with treatment would increase. Maybe personal responsibility, sacrifice when necessary, and more participation by each individual in the cost of his or her care would improve compliance rates and reduce the overall cost of health care.

But the cost of medication to the individual must be considered. As costs increase, fewer can afford to pay them. A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that an increase in medication co-payments from only $6 to $10 results in a 6.2 percent increase in noncompliance and a 9 percent reduction in the share of fully compliant persons. The same study finds that increases in coinsurance lead to even larger increases in noncompliance. As for the uninsured, the American Public Health Association has found that 89 percent have not filled a prescription due to cost.

What was lost on me was some very simple economics. If each individual pays less for his or her prescriptions, compliance increases and the nation and insurance companies pay less of a total health care bill. Unfortunately, the trend in health insurance is for each individual to pay higher co-pays or coinsurance. As these costs go up out-of-pocket expenses may exceed one’s ability to pay. The choice? Noncompliance or increased debt and possible bankruptcy.

So yes, compliance is a choice. And noncompliance greatly increases the nation’s health care bill. Every proposal on the table that makes an individual pay more for his medicine will increase noncompliance and add even more to the nation’s health care bill. High deductibles and higher co-payments charged by insurance companies against each individual will only make the problem worse. Paradoxically, as cost-driven noncompliance pushes total health care costs higher, these same insurance companies may find themselves less profitable over the long run as they face the higher cost of complications caused by medication noncompliance.

Perhaps if insurance companies lowered prescription co-payments more patients would take their medicine as directed and the insurance companies, with fewer complication-related charges against premiums, could actually increase profits. Pharmaceutical companies would benefit as well as more prescriptions would be filled. We should have no problem with health insurance and pharmaceutical companies making more money if the profits they earn come from lower total health care costs and healthier individuals.

As for my, and others’, idea that if people pay a larger percentage of their health care costs they will live healthier, more compliant, lives, the truth is that health and compliance can be expensive. Low-cost prescription benefits must be considered as we approach ideas to lower total healthcare costs. Higher costs to individuals for medication lead to higher rates of noncompliance, which lead to a higher national health care bill that, one way or another, we all must share.


Medication Compliance: Why Don’t We Take Our Meds?

George Hofmann

George Hofmann is a mindfulness meditation instructor teaching people with mental illness how to manage stress. He also has bipolar disorder 1. He writes about these topics at

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APA Reference
Hofmann, G. (2018). Medication Compliance: Why Don’t We Take Our Meds?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 2 May 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.