Independent living and assisted living community residents, many of whom manage their own medications, risk falls, sickness and even hospitalization when they start using pill organizers, according to newly published research. The reason for the finding, which seems counterintuitive, may surprise you.

When seniors and other older adults take their medication directly from its packaging, they tend to take it inconsistently, found researchers at the University of East Anglia in England. When they switch to using pill organizers, however, they become more adherent to their medication regimens and experience normal side effects.

“It is likely that because the patients had been taking their medication sporadically, they weren’t getting the expected health improvements,” said lead researcher Debi Bhattacharya, Ph.D., from the university’s School of Pharmacy. “The doctor may, therefore, have increased the dose of the medication to try to get the desired effect.”

Bhattacharya and colleagues looked at 288 people aged more than 75 years who were prescribed three or more types of medical tablets at one of six medical practices. They homed in on 29 participants who were not already use a pill organizer and were unintentionally not taking their medication as prescribed.

The researchers monitored these individuals for eight weeks, with half continuing to take their medication directly from the packaging and half switching to using a pill organizer. Of those using a pill organizer, five adverse events were recorded, compared with none in the usual packaging group. The adverse events included three falls, one episode of low blood glucose and one incident in which a person felt unwell and was unable to get out of the bathtub for 12 hours until rescued.

“The results of this trial are encouraging as they suggest that pill organizers do help patients to take their medication as prescribed,” Bhattacharya said. Therefore, she recommended, people already using pill organizers successfully can continue to do so.

“However, when switching from usual packaging to a pill organizer, we recommend that patients speak to their general practitioner or pharmacist to check that the doses of their medication are appropriate,” Bhattacharya said.

The study was published July 6 by the journal Health Technology Assessment.