Medicine only helps if you take it properly. And adhering to an exact schedule of what to take, and when, can be challenging for patients who are forgetful or need to take several medications.
Only about half of patients take medication as prescribed, resulting in unnecessary hospital admissions and ER visits that cost the U.S. health care system an estimated $290 billion a year.
To help combat the problem, many doctors are recommending smartphone apps that send reminders to patients to take their medications and record when they take each one.
"I think it's going to become pretty standard" for doctors to recommend them, said Michael A. Weber, a cardiologist at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. Weber began recommending apps to patients a few months ago and already has seen better lab results from a few using them.
He said the apps are particularly helpful for patients with symptomless conditions, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Those patients are less likely to regularly take their medications than someone with pain or an infection.
"I don't think they're going to change the world," Weber said, though he recognizes the benefit of apps. Even so, he said smartphone apps won't do much to help people who simply don't like taking medicine, fear side effects, or can't afford their prescriptions.
It's too soon to tell how well the apps keep patients compliant or how long they keep using them.
Darrell West, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, said some doctors have reported better medication adherence, but there haven't been large scale studies on the effectiveness of such apps.
The apps began appearing a few years ago and now there are dozens.
Available functions include providing more detailed information on the patient's medication and illness, prompts to refill prescriptions, e-mail alerts about possible drug interactions, doctor locators and more.
Some have symptom checkers, and one called iPharmacy can identify pills when patients enter their shape, color and imprinted text. Others are just for women on birth control pills or patches (myPill) or patients with complex chronic diseases, such as cancer (CareZone Cancer), diabetes (Diabetes Pacer, which also tracks blood sugar and exercise) or HIV (My Health Matters, from drugmaker Merck & Co.). For those patients, getting off schedule or ignoring symptoms can have particularly serious consequences.
Still more apps take distinct approaches. For instance, Mango Health lets users earn points for complying with their medication schedule. Those points can be turned into gift cards or charitable donations.
CEO and founder Jason Oberfest, formerly head of game platforms at MySpace, said Mango Health partners with doctors and health insurers who are recommending its app to patients and customers.
"We've heard from people using the application as old as their mid-70s and older," Oberfest said, but it's especially popular with the 35-to-55 age group, people familiar with video games.
Tips for choosing a smartphone app to remind you to take your pills:
Check whether it's available for your smartphone's operating system.
Ask your doctor's opinion.
Start with a free or low-cost app. Search your app store for "medication reminder."
Keep it simple. Apps can come with many features. If you only want reminders to take your pills, that's all you need.
For privacy, pick apps with password protection.
If your life is hectic, consider one with a snooze function.