Forgetting and remembering to take multiple medicines

Listen to patients and health professionals talk about their experiences with remembering or forgetting to take multiple medicines.

What to do if you forget to take a medicine

  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist; or
  • Look up the Consumer Medicine Information (CMI) which is available for most prescription and pharmacist-only medicines.


Many people find it easy to remember to take their medicines. If they do forget, it often poses little problem. However, some people we spoke to have a lot of problems remembering to take medicines for various reasons. Forgetting to take medicines at the appropriate time is a common problem.


New medicines and established medicines

For some people we spoke to, it was easier to remember to take a medicine when it was new. They were more conscious of ‘getting it right’, or they were happy to finally be receiving treatment and feeling better. However, it was easy to become complacent over time as they became accustomed to feeling well and no longer had symptoms or pain to remind them to take their medicines. In these circumstances, adding a ‘new’ or short-term medicine (such as an antibiotic for an infection) could help by triggering their memory to take all of their other usual medicines.

Glenn found it difficult to remember to take his medicines once he and his doctor had found a combination of appropriate medicines that worked.

For other people, adding a new medicine meant it was more difficult to remember to take their medicines, until they had a well-established routine for the new medicine.

Linda struggles to remember to take her regular medicines as it is. Irregular events, like holidays, will completely disrupt her established routine.


Interruptions to usual routines

Remembering to take medicines can be a problem when there is some interruption to usual daily life, such as holidays, running last-minute errands or going out for a meal. This is difficult for the people we spoke to who have well-established, home-based medicines routines. Oversleeping is an issue with medicines that need to be taken first thing in the morning. Busy days that make people feel unwell, tired or lose sleep mean that they may forget to take their night-time medicines.

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Emma found managing medicines easier when she was living at home. Now she lives on her own and goes out at night, she occasionally forgets her medicines.

There are also many times in a normal day when the people we spoke to become distracted by something that needs their immediate attention—or something much more interesting—right at the time they usually take their medicine. The phone may ring, a visitor will drop by or a family member needs them. Also, many people find it more difficult to remember medicines taken in the middle of the day, when there is more ‘going on’. This is particularly the case for people who need to take medicines at work, as medicines are not their main priority when they are at work.

Helen finds it particularly difficult to remember to take her medicines when she is at work, as her primary responsibility is to attend to work-related matters.

Sometimes life simply becomes more ‘overloaded’ than usual. Major life events can be extremely disruptive. For example, a number of people we spoke to described such occasions as the death of a loved one or moving to a retirement village as times when they forgot their medicines, or had to be particularly careful to take them.

Niall rarely forgets to take his medicines. However, the birth of his daughter and the first few months of her life did have an impact on his medication routine.

Particularly busy times—such as increased family responsibilities, social events or work commitments—mean that many things in life including medicines will be forgotten about, or put off, until life returns to normal. For Mia, who works shift work and has a busy social life, there is rarely a time that life is ‘normal’.

If Mia remembers to take one medicine, she remembers to take all of them. She found this easier when she lived in the country and had less to do.


Helpful reminders

Some medicines are easier to remember to take than others. Medicines that can be stored in plain view or can be taken ‘attached’ to usual daily routines (such as brushing teeth) are easier to remember than medicines that have to be stored out of view (such as in the refrigerator) or taken in an unusual way. One participant, for example, found it difficult to remember to remove her medication patch in the mornings, as it was applied to her back where she could not see it or remember to remove it after a full night’s sleep. Ways of storing medicines or reminders that people use do not always help them to remember.

Linda needs to see her medicines if she is to remember to take them. No other reminder or strategy has worked for her.

Sometimes symptoms will return, or there will be less relief from them, if people forget to take their medicines. Side effects or pain can act as a reminder that they have forgotten. And for some people, the return of symptoms or pain can have a significant impact on the things they need to do.

Suzanne finds she gets ‘restless legs’ that keep her awake at night if she forgets to take her medicines.


What people do when they forget to take a medicine

What people do when they forget to take their medicines usually depends on the medicine they have forgotten to take. Some medicines can be taken as soon as they are remembered; others should not be taken until the next scheduled dose at the usual time. Many people we spoke to had asked their doctor what to do if they forget.

Don describes how he talked to his doctor about what to do if he forgets to take his medicine.

Helen describes what she does when she forgets to take a medicine, according to which medicine it is.


Strategies that help people remember to take medicines

There are various strategies that people use to help them remember to take their medicines. Some people carry an emergency supply so that they don’t risk missing a dose: one person does this by keeping a spare strip of some of her medicines in her purse, while another keeps a small cosmetic bag with spares of all her medicines just for going out.

Alarms are helpful, particularly for medicines that are more likely to be forgotten such as those that are taken at midday. Other people set an alarm on their mobile phone, so that they are reminded to take their medicine wherever they are. Smartphone apps specifically to help with remembering medicines were also found to be extremely helpful to the people who use them.

However, reminder systems for medicines are not always foolproof; they need to be easily accommodated into a person’s normal day for them to work. For example, one person we spoke to once had a job that involved working on rooftops and he would not have his medicines with him when the phone reminder alarm rang. By the time he was back on the ground, he had forgotten all about his medicines.

Glenn has tried various reminders, but problems with remembering to take his medicines have persisted. He is looking into getting an implant for one of his medicines to partly address this problem.

A number of people feel that being deliberately conscientious and aware of the purpose of their medicine and what it means for their life helps them to remember to take them. For some people, this means that medicines that have a more important purpose for them are more likely to be remembered.

Mia finds it easier to remember to take the contraceptive pill than medication for Crohn’s disease because there is an incentive with the pill that is more immediately meaningful.

Many people we spoke to discovered or created successful reminders that fit well with their day-to-day lives and are no trouble to use. Also, reminders are not needed for some people we spoke to, as they have never experienced an issue remembering to take their medicines.

Peter S finds his medicines are easy to remember to take and, if he occasionally forgets, he always remembers and is able to take them at a later time.


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The Living with multiple medicines project was developed in collaboration with

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