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Don't Judge a Pill by Its Color

Study finds people may stop taking heart medications if the drug's appearance changes

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Amy Norton

HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, July 14, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Generic drugs used for heart disease commonly get makeovers that change their shape or color -- and that may prompt some patients to stop using them, a new study finds.

Experts know that issues like side effects and costs can discourage people from taking prescription drugs -- even potentially lifesaving ones. The new findings, reported in the July 15 Annals of Internal Medicine, point to another potential obstacle: the ever-shifting appearance of generic medications.

The odds that someone would stop taking their heart medication went up 34 percent after a change in pill color, and 66 percent after a change in pill shape, according to the study.

It's impossible to say for sure that changes in pills' appearance were to blame, said lead researcher Dr. Aaron Kesselheim, an assistant professor of medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

"We can only say there's an association," Kesselheim said. But, he added, "we think it's a real association."

Plus, Kesselheim noted, in his experience, pill makeovers do create confusion.

"It happens with my own patients," he said. "They'll notice a change, and then call, and we have to give them reassurance."

According to Kesselheim, one reason for the concern is that some patients have heard of pharmacies making mistakes and giving people the wrong pills.

The study's findings are based on medical records for over 11,500 Americans who were hospitalized for a heart attack between 2006 and 2011. All were prescribed a generic version of at least one of four heart drugs: a beta-blocker, ACE inhibitor, angiotensin II-receptor blocker, or a statin.

During the study, 29 percent of those heart patients saw a change in their pills' color or shape. After the change, they were more likely than other patients to stop taking their medication for at least one month.

The researchers accounted for some other factors that could affect patients' ability, or willingness, to take their medications -- such as their age and overall health. And pill changes were still linked to an increased risk that people would stop taking their prescriptions.

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