How technology can assist elderly seniors who must manage many drugs

Medications are prescribed to improve patients’ health, not worsen it; however, when medications have dangerous interactions or are taken incorrectly, patients can experience hazardous, even fatal effects.

Polypharmacy, the practice of taking multiple medications simultaneously for the management of one or more health conditions, is becoming a growing concern for physicians, due to possible drug-drug interactions (DDIs) that can cause adverse reactions for patients. And even without drug interactions, polypharmacy can cause nausea, lightheadedness, dry mouth, and other troublesome symptoms.

This is especially true for seniors who commonly have to manage multiple medications a day. In America, 20% of seniors take 10 medications daily, posing serious risk to their health if taken incorrectly or due to undetected drug interactions. Over the last decade, seniors sought out medical treatment for adverse drug events more than 35 million times. Studies show that nearly 80% of medication errors are preventable. Additionally, if these adverse drug events continue to occur at the current rate, it will cost more than $420 million in economic losses.

This doesn’t just apply to prescription medications – over-the-counter medications, vitamins, and supplements can all contribute to DDIs. For example, certain heart medications that are commonly prescribed to seniors are incredibly sensitive and can interact with certain foods and supplements, like fibre or herbal supplements, which can cause one or the other drug to become less effective or, in many cases, to amplify the effect of a drug – ultimately causing serious side effects.

Additional factors that increase the risks of polypharmacy

Many senior patients have little to no understanding of how certain medications can mix dangerously with those extra supplements and vitamins because of various communication breakdowns in the healthcare journey. For example, even when asked, many patients fail to tell their healthcare professionals about other medications or supplements they are taking.

Seniors also often see multiple specialists and, although electronic medical records help eliminate the issue of prescription interactions, incomplete records or a lack of knowledge about previous treatment plans, including the use of supplements, could result in prescribing errors. These are a type of medication error that occur when a prescriber chooses the wrong medication, the wrong dose or frequency of dose, the wrong administration, or the wrong duration of treatment for a patient, which could be potentially very dangerous for patients already taking several medications.

In other cases, patients opt to rely on the internet for medication guidance about vitamins and supplements. Perhaps they read an article or took advice from a friend on a particular supplement, purchased it, and began taking it without any knowledge of how it might react with their current prescriptions. Even if the patient does know the risks at hand, they may not have access to resources to help them or their caregiver manage and track potential adverse effects.

To avoid harmful, even fatal mistakes, seniors need a reliable source of information where they can assess potential side effects and reactions from their medication combinations. As physicians and caregivers, we must communicate the risks when possible and provide senior patients with options to track, manage, and learn about their medications.

How technology boosts support for senior patients

While the common method of trusting a pillbox to track dosages may work for some, other patients need an extra level of support that only technology could provide, especially if they don’t have access to regular in-person caregiver support. Interestingly, the pandemic flipped the script on the widespread belief that seniors are not open to new technologies. Research from AARP shows that 44% of older adults view technology more positively than they did before COVID-19, and 27% of people over the age of 50 now use a wearable device. And Pew Research found that 75% of Americans 65 and older are online – a proportion that is rising each year.

There are several digital healthcare solutions that are driving innovation in medication management and engagement to better support senior patients. These include automatic prescription dispensers, telemedicine guidance for patients who need regular virtual consultations to manage their prescriptions, even smartphone apps to help patients log their medication doses. Tools of this nature could be helpful for patients who need extra support in tracking their medications, so they don’t accidentally double or miss a dose, while keeping them engaged with their provider to warn them about the risks and DDIs associated with their medication and remind them about refills.

Like everything else in overall health and wellness, knowledge is power when taking medications. It is critical for seniors to understand the risks of polypharmacy, feel empowered in their medication management, and have access to the resources they need to safely navigate their medication journey – and technology is an important solution that is increasingly in reach of even our oldest patients.