Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Understanding rational non-adherence to medications. A discrete choice experiment in a community sample in Australia

Tracey-Lea Laba1*, Jo-anne Brien13 and Stephen Jan2

Author Affiliations

1 Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Sydney, Camperdown, Sydney, Australia

2 The George Institute for Global Health, Missenden Rd, Camperdown, Sydney, Australia

3 Faculty of Medicine, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

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BMC Family Practice 2012, 13:61  doi:10.1186/1471-2296-13-61

Published: 20 June 2012



In spite of the potential impact upon population health and expenditure, interventions promoting medication adherence have been found to be of moderate effectiveness and cost effectiveness. Understanding the relative influence of factors affecting patient medication adherence decisions and the characteristics of individuals associated with variation in adherence will lead to a better understanding of how future interventions should be designed and targeted. This study aims to explore medication-taking decisions that may underpin intentional medication non-adherence behaviour amongst a community sample and the relative importance of medication specific factors and patient background characteristics contributing to those decisions.


A discrete choice experiment conducted through a web-enabled online survey was used to estimate the relative importance of eight medication factors (immediate and long-term medication harms and benefits, cost, regimen, symptom severity, alcohol restrictions) on the preference to continue taking a medication. To reflect more closely what usually occurs in practice, non-disease specific medication and health terms were used to mimic decisions across multiple medications and conditions.161 general community participants, matching the national Australian census data (age, gender) were recruited through an online panel provider (participation rate: 10%) in 2010.


Six of the eight factors (i.e. immediate and long-term medication harms and benefits, cost, and regimen) had a significant influence on medication choice. Patient background characteristics did not improve the model. Respondents with private health insurance appeared less sensitive to cost then those without private health insurance. In general, health outcomes, framed as a side-effect, were found to have a greater influence over adherence than outcomes framed as therapeutic benefits.


Medication-taking decisions are the subject of rational choices, influenced by the attributes of treatments and potentially amenable to intervention through education, strategic pricing and the altering of dosing characteristics. Understanding individual treatment preferences is thus an important step to improving adherence support provision in practice. Re-framing future interventions and policies to support rational and informed individual patient choices, is the way forward to realising the full potential health and economic benefits from the efficacious use of medications.