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Editorials for Clinical Practice

CHADIS Co-Director and President, Dr. Barbara Howard is a regular contributor to the Behavioral Consult column of Pediatric News and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.


Dr. Howard is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician trained by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton at Harvard University. She is a national speaker on child behavior problems and is a past president of the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. She was a contributing author for Bright Futures™, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Primary Care (DSM-PC) and Bright Futures in Practice: Mental Health and has served on national committees of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

What, you never filled the prescription?!

Barbara Howard, MD

Publish date: April 26, 2017

By Barbara J. Howard, MD 


Pediatric News


How many times do you come out of the exam room after seeing a patient in follow-up and heave a sigh because the parents did not give their child the medicine as you prescribed it?



Without adherence to the medication plan, a lot of suboptimal outcomes can and do occur. A urinary tract infection may come back partially treated, requiring a more extensive work-up. A strep infection may spread to family members. Inflammatory bowel disease may require bowel resection. Asthma may simmer with long-term inflammation and pulmonary compromise as well as concurrent activity limitations. Often children with asthma are given less than 50% of prescribed controller medicines. In one pediatric study, medication adherence was not even asked about in 66% of cases. In adults, 20%-30% of prescriptions are never filled.


As physicians, we are carefully schooled in making complex diagnoses, sorting out and prioritizing the laboratory work-up, and memorizing the latest and most effective treatment regimens. What is rarely taught, however, is how to conduct the conversation needed to optimize subsequent adherence to the medication plan.

Problem-solving counseling is an evidence-based method to improve medication adherence. This is a semistructured form of cognitive-behavioral intervention designed to engage the responsible person (parent or child) in shared decision making about whether and how to take medication, and which one to take. After all, for good or for bad, it is really their choice!


The problem-solving counseling model consists of five steps:


1. Problem definition. This step involves developing a clear and specific definition of the problem. Educating families about a medical condition has to start with asking what they already know. This often includes sagas of bad outcomes in relatives. Ask: Who do you know with asthma? How was it for them? The family needs to know symptoms, simple pathophysiology (such as inflammation you can’t see or feel), course, and prognosis. They also need to know where their child’s condition falls on the continuum. And they need to understand the essential prevention aspect of controllers in what appears to be an asymptomatic child. Failure to communicate this is a common reason for nonadherence in asthma.


2. Generation of alternatives. This involves brainstorming to identify multiple and creative solutions. This step will reveal past experiences as well as things the family learned on the Internet that may be true and relevant, or true but irrelevant, or false. Ask: What have you heard about treatments for asthma? What do you think would be best for your child? Generic handouts with a sampling of medicines, advantages and disadvantages, side effects, and costs of the main choices have been shown to be helpful guides that enhance adherence through empowering the family in their choice and reassuring family members that you have been thorough. It can be a balancing act to describe possible side effects without scaring the family into shutting down and being unable to make any choice at all. However, failure to discuss common effects they may notice – such as a racing heart from rescue medications – but that you think of as trivial, may also lead to nonadherence. A way to communicate about perceived side effects and manage them has to be part of an effective plan. Planning a phone or email check-in can make a big difference.


3. Decision making. This step involves evaluating all the solutions to identify the most effective and feasible option. Once the family understands the problem and the alternatives, it is crucial for you, as the physician, to not only ask their preference but be ready to suggest what you think would be best. While not wanting to be patronized, families want your opinion. I like to have family members close their eyes and visualize carrying out the selected routine. This is a good hypnotic technique for future remembering, but you also may discover important facts by this simple exercise, such as that the child gets up alone for school, making morning dosing unreliable. Shared decision making is not a way to abdicate your expert opinion, just to incorporate family preferences and factors.


4. Solution implementation. This step involves carrying out the plan. There is no substitute for a real life trial! There may be surprising issues: Autistic children may be afraid of a nebulizer machine. Sensitive children may refuse the flavor of some inhalers.


5. Solution verification. Evaluate the effectiveness of the solution and modify the plan as necessary. Follow-up contact is crucial, especially at the start of a new chronic medication plan. When families know that the plan can be changed if things do not go well or they change their minds, they will be less fearful of giving it a try and more honest about barriers they perceive or encounter rather than simply showing up at the next visit with the child’s condition out of control.


Although using problem-solving counseling may sound complicated, it is intended to be focused and brief, and has been shown to be feasibly done in the clinic by primary care providers, without lengthening the visit. CHADIS even has teleprompter text specific to parent-reported barriers to help you.


Even when family members understand and agrees to a medication plan during the visit, there are a variety of reasons they may not adhere to it. They may forget to give the medicine, be unable to afford it once prescribed, experience unpleasant side effects, encounter resistance from the child, or get unanticipated push back from family members. All of these issues can be addressed if you know that they happen. You just have to ask! Recommending smartphone reminders or reminder apps (such as Medisafe), using GoodRx to find cheaper sources, suggesting candy as a chaser, recommending behavior strategies for feisty kids, and providing written materials (or a phone call) for reluctant relatives are strategies you can prepare in advance to have in your quiver and are well worth your time.


If it weren’t enough to address adherence to optimize outcomes, asthma management and control will likely be a Clinical Quality Measure, determining how we will be paid starting this year. Now you have a tool to do it!



Dr. Howard’s contribution to this publication is as a paid expert to Frontline Medical Communications. E-mail her at

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