Better medication tracking

Back in March, my doctor prescribed a new pill for me to take every day. That brought the number up to six—five in the morning and one at night—and I decided to give the medication tracking feature of the iOS Health app a try. This was a new addition last fall when iOS 16 came out, and it seemed like a good way to make sure I didn’t miss anything. After three months, I can say it wasn’t that good, although the failure may lie more with me than with the app.

Before we get into my experience with medication tracking, let’s deal with the obvious question: How could someone whose physique is so perfect he’s often mistaken for da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man need six pills a day? Well, my doctor seems to think the results of my blood tests are of some diagnostic value, and I’ve decided to humor him.

The Health app is quite good at helping you enter your medications. It can autocomplete the names of most medicines, and it knows the most common dosages, so you don’t need to type nearly as much as you might think. You might even be able to aim your camera at the pill bottle and get the app to figure out everything. Less helpful, I thought, were the visual clues you can add to identify your pills. Apple lets you choose from a huge variety of pill shapes and other types of dosage delivery,

Health app pill shapes

but only a small number of colors.

Health app pill colors

Slight differences in color, which could be very helpful in distinguishing pills that are otherwise similar in size and shape, just aren’t available in the app. I don’t get why Apple doesn’t let you just take a photo of a pill and use that as the ID.

Another deficiency is that size isn’t included as part of the visual ID. While I understand Apple’s reluctance to ask its users to measure their pills (something I’d do readily, but I’m weird that way), there’s no question that people use their pills’ sizes to help distinguish them. For example, my Metformin pill is a white rectangle with round ends, but its main feature is that it’s fucking huge. My grandparents would’ve called it a “horse pill.”

After I got my pills entered into the app and set the time of day at which they should be taken, I enabled Notifications so I’d get an alarm and a persistent notice on my phone’s lock screen. This is where the app and I got crosswise. I usually didn’t have my phone with me when I took my pills, and even when I did, I’d often fail to tap the button in the app that marked them as taken and dismiss the notice. So later in the day I’d see the notice and question whether I’d failed to take the pills or just failed to mark that I’d taken the pills. The problem was that taking the pills—even the horse pill—was not so memorable that I’d know for sure that I’d done it a few hours earlier. I ended up questioning myself about the pills every week or so.

Is this related to the fact that I’m 62 years old? Probably, but I’ve always been a bit absent-minded (my wife would say more than a bit). And while I will certainly take the lion’s share of the blame for my inability to keep perfect track of my medications through the Health app, I doubt that I’m the only one who has trouble disciplining themself to mark their pills as taken as soon as they’re swallowed.

So I decided to go with a slightly lower-tech solution. A pill organizer, one that I’d kept from back when I was helping my mom keep track of her medications.

AM PM weekly pill organizer

I fill it on Saturday for the upcoming week. There are several advantages to using the organizer, but the main one for me is that it’s self-documenting. Because I leave the lid open, the organizer itself provides a record of whether I’ve taken today’s pills or not. This is true automation, something I doubt the Health app will ever equal.

You could argue that the Health app is still better because it gives a full medication history, while the organizer resets its history every week. That’s great if you’re one of those people who carefully documents their life. If I were one of those people, I wouldn’t have trouble remembering to open Health and tap the button right after I took my pills.

At present, seeing the organizer next to my sink is enough to prompt me to take my pills if I haven’t and to reassure me if I have. I can imagine a day in the future where that won’t be enough, and I’ll have to add something more. But this is not that day.