Q&A: What are the pros and cons of automatic prescription refilling?

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John Ellmann’s prescription for Relpax, a medicine used to treat migraine headaches. (Alyssa Pointer/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Question: What are the pros and cons of automatic prescription refilling?

Answer: Automatic prescription refilling helps keep you on your medication schedule. It eliminates the need for you to remember to request a refill and narrows the chance of missing a dose, which can be harmful to your health. Before you run out of medication, your pharmacy can refill your prescription and remind you via phone call, email, or text that it is ready.

This kind of automation is useful both to people who need medication to treat chronic conditions — such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or even acid reflux — and people who take medications less frequently, since it is not a part of their routine. However, when a prescription changes or a medication is discontinued, auto-refilling can present numerous logistical and health-related challenges.

When your physicians prescribe medication, they can electronically submit that prescription to your pharmacy, but — in many cases — that is where the exchange ends.

While your physicians can electronically change the dosage of medication filled at your pharmacy, they cannot always stop your pharmacy from filling prescriptions you no longer need. Therefore, patients can inadvertently take medications longer than intended. If your doctor replaces a medication with a new drug, patients can also end up obtaining and ingesting both unnecessarily. Additionally, patients who end up with a surplus of medication can be tempted to hoard the leftovers or take it “just in case.” This is never a good idea. Storing leftover medications at home dramatically increases the risk of misuse by the patient or by someone else in the home, and taking excessive doses puts you at risk for unexpected health complications.

If you do end up with excessive or incorrect medication, make sure you dispose of it appropriately. Throwing away medication at home not only wastes your money, but also presents a danger to people in your home. While most pharmacies will accept medication returns, they may not take medicines back once you have left the store, so talk to your physician to find a secure medication disposal box near you.

You can prevent errors in auto-refilling by talking to both your pharmacist and physician regularly. Ask questions about your prescription, double-check your dosages, and keep your prescription information handy — on your fridge, in your wallet, or on your phone.

Helen C. Thorpe, M.D., is medical director of Mercy Physician Network.