Why does the doctor keep changing my meds?

By David Joel Miller.

More than once in my career as a therapist I have been asked to talk with a client about a subject that professionals call “Medication compliance.” The doctor wants us to be sure that the client is taking the medication as prescribed. People respond differently to different medications. There are reasons why clients might not take meds as prescribed. There are excellent reasons why the doctor wants their patients to take meds as prescribed.

I can’t give you advice on meds or counseling here, this is a blog, not on-line treatment, but maybe I can provide some general information on the issue of meds and why the doctor might change them.

There are five principle steps I see doctors go through in the process of deciding what meds a client should take. I am sure doctors think about a lot more than these steps but let me walk you through this process. If this raises questions about your medication please talk with your health care provider.

This blog post is about med management from the professional’s viewpoint. Next time some thoughts about side effects and other reasons clients don’t take meds as prescribed.

A. The doctor needs to do a thorough initial assessment. Sometimes they ask questions that sound like they are irrelevant. The doctor has their reasons. They need to establish a working diagnosis. You wouldn’t want to be prescribed cancer treatment if you didn’t have cancer, would you? They also need to know what your symptoms are and their severity. You want them prescribing meds that have some chance of helping with your problems and they need to know what you problems are to be effective at this.

B. The doctor who prescribes your psych meds needs to know if you have any other health issues and they need to monitor you for other problems and side effects. More than half of all psychiatric meds are prescribed by primary care physicians who know your medical history. The more complicated situations are usually managed by specialized doctors called psychiatrists. They will probably want lab work before prescribing medication. If you have high blood pressure they may avoid a drug known to raise blood pressure. If you have type two diabetes you psychiatrist may avoid drugs known to raise blood sugar levels or cause weight gain. I say may, because sometimes your psychiatric symptoms may be so severe that the benefits of a med will outweigh the potential risks. If a doctor does this he will probably be monitoring the effects that drug has on you. Sometimes the doctor will order regular tests, such as blood tests, to make sure the drug is doing what it is supposed to do and is not causing other problems.

At this point, the doctor will “start” a patent on a med. This initial med may not be the final med you will end up on. The doctor may need to change your med. Some meds need to be started high and then they may be reduced. Others meds may have side effects that go away over time so the doctor might choose to start with a low dose and raise it over time.

So now you are on meds, the problem should be controlled and all is well, right? Probably not. A lot of clients report that at this point the doctor starts changing meds. Why? And what makes them make the changes they do? Most often the changing starts because the problem is not under control. Either the client reports the med is not working or there are other symptoms that are causing problems. So the doctor might do three things in this order.

1.  Increase the strength or dosage of the med the client is taking and or vary the time of day or number of doses. If the doctor feels the diagnosis is correct and that the med should be helping, the first option is usually to increase the dose. If there are side effects like being sleepy during the day or not sleeping at night the doctor may choose to have the client take the meds at a different time of day. Nightmares might be another reason to move the dose to the morning instead of the night. The doctor may try increasing the dose several times to see if more of the preferred med is going to work.

2. If one or several increases in dose don’t help the doctor may try switching meds. Many doctors have a preferred med. This may be one they studied in school or did research on. It also might be a med they have used a lot and gotten good results from. Since not everyone is the same sometimes this first choice med does not work or causes other problems so the doctor tries switching. After the med switch, they may have to increase the dose of the new med. They may need to repeat the switch and adjust dose process several times to find one that works for this client. This is frustrating for the client. It might frustrate the doctor also. He wants to help the client and nothing seems to work. This might be the point where he asks the therapist to have a talk with the client and see if the client understands and is taking the med as prescribed. Let’s say the client understands, is willing and able to follow directions, but none of the meds have worked. What might a doctor do next?

3. The doctor might at this point decide to try several meds in combination. This is a tricky one. He needs to select multiple medications from all the ones available and adjust doses of multiple meds. This process may continue for a long time as new meds are added, doses are adjusted and some meds may be discontinued. After a while, a discontinued med might get added back if it looks like the client was better with that med than after it was discontinued. During the process of juggling multiple meds, it is very important that the client is following the directions, telling the doctor about any effects and side effects experienced and it is also important that the doctor is hearing what the client is telling the doctor about their med experience.

I hope that this blog post helps you understand some of the things a prescribing doctor might consider or do in the process of trying to find the med that will help their client.

You are welcome to post comments on your experiences with meds. Just remember that as a therapist, I can’t give you specific advice about meds or prescribe any.

Another time some thoughts on side effects and why clients aren’t always able to take meds as prescribed.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog, there is also a Facebook authors page, in its infancy, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. Thanks to all who read this blog.

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