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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
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"There are many factors that affect people's medication compliance. This is one of the first studies to show that pill appearance is one," said Dr. Kevin Marzo, chief of cardiology at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y.

And the fact that people are skipping heart medications is concerning, according to Marzo, who was not involved in the study.

"In heart attack survivors, a lack of adherence to medications could be a life-or-death situation," Marzo said.

Marzo pointed out that people who've just had a heart attack can often feel overwhelmed. "When they leave the hospital, they're often leaving on three classes of medication," he said. "That alone can be confusing. On top of that, their lives have been shaken by this experience."

If their medication suddenly looks different, Marzo noted, that might just add to the anxiety.

Some pharmacies do alert patients to changes in medication appearance by placing a sticker on the container, Kesselheim noted. But, he added, pill bottles can have so many stickers that the message might be missed.

Kesselheim said he hopes these findings will put the issue on doctors' radar, so they can discuss it with patients.

"Patients need to know that it's common for generics to change their appearance, and that doesn't mean they're working any differently," Kesselheim said.

He added that if patients are concerned by a shift in their medication's shape or color, they should call their doctor or pharmacist rather than just abandoning the drug -- even for a short time.

But ultimately, this might be a problem for regulators to address, according to Kesselheim. He said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could, in theory, require new generic medications to conform to the shape and color of their brand-name counterpart.

Marzo agreed. "I think these findings should eventually trickle down to the manufacturers of generics."

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