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Changing a pill's color has big health consequences

Ulrich Baumgarten

The shape and color of a pill don't matter at all for how well a given medication works; Nexium doesn't get any sort of medical boost from its bright purple coating.

But what pills look like, a new study suggests, could actually matter a lot for whether patients even take their medication in the first place. Research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine shows a strong relationship between patients halting their meds after being switched to a generic pill that worked exactly the same but looked a little different.

The research looked at more than 10,000 heart attack patients taking medication after the initial incident. And they studied what happened to the people — about a quarter of the group being studied who had their pills changed to a different generic, which might have a different shape or size.

Heart attack patients who quit taking their meds were 30 percent more likely to have had their pills change color or shape before they stopped. And that means "change in the shape or color of medications may contribute to patients' stopping treatment," the study authors write.

That can be an expensive problem: when patients aren't complying with their medications, there can be a higher rate of complications or trips back to the hospital.

One easy fix here would be to simply require all generics to look similar. Given that patients' seem to rely on the appearance of their medications to figure out if its the one they should take, why not make the drugs that do the same thing look the same, too?

Under current law, there's really no type of coordination between generic drug-makers on what their products look like; each one picks a color and a shape and ships the drug out to patients. It would likely take an intervention by a government agency, perhaps the Food and Drug Administration, to ensure that pills that do the same thing also look the same, too.