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How to Get More Refills and Avoid Running Out of Your Prescription

Just your average apothecary (pharmacist), feet firmly planted behind the pharmacy counter, whose mortar and pestle are hitched to a star.


Prescription Refills

"I'm here to pick up my prescription."

"I'm sorry sir, your prescription is all out of refills."

"What? What does that mean? I have to be on this medication the rest of my life, you know. Obviously the doctor wants me to have it. What do you mean it is out of refills?"

If I had a nickel for every time this conversation, or some form of it, occurred in a local pharmacy, I would probably be writing this article from a lounge chair on my own private island in the Pacific.

Why do prescriptions run out of refills? And when they do, what do you do about it? As a pharmacist I am aware that this question can be frustrating for patients. Running out of refills can ruin a weekend. Have you ever tried to get your medication refilled on a Friday night, only to be told it is out of refills—and you will need to wait until Monday to get more? Running out of refills wastes your time. Now you have to make another trip back to the pharmacy to pick up your pills.

In this article I will briefly explain the rationale behind refills, how you get more, and how to avoid running out.

Why Prescriptions Have Limited Refills

Every prescription medication in the U.S. is written with a certain number of refills allowed by your doctor. This may be a specific number (e.g., "5 refills") or a specific time frame (e.g., good for 1 year). Why? Why not just write on the prescription "FOREVER?"

There are three reasons:

  1. Federal law: Federal Law has certain restrictions on the quantities and number of refills allowed on prescription medications. See image below.
  2. State law: Each individual state is responsible for developing and enforcing additional laws which also limit the number of refills that any prescription may be allowed.
  3. Good medical practice: Although you may be taking a prescription for the rest of your life, limiting the number of refills will ensure that patients regularly return to their physician for important follow-up appointments, monitoring, and evaluation of the effectiveness of the medication.

The number of refills that any particular prescription can be given is therefore determined both by pharmacy law and medical practice. As a rule, most prescription drugs are not authorized for more than 1 year of refills without the need to obtain a new prescription from the physician.

The Federal Controlled Substance Act

This section of Federal Law pertains to the number of refills allowed on controlled substances.

This section of Federal Law pertains to the number of refills allowed on controlled substances.

How to Get More Refills

So, how do you get more refills on your prescription? Simply put, your doctor must be contacted in one of two ways:

  1. By you
  2. By your pharmacy

Which one depends on the state you live in and the preference of your own physician. The easiest way to get a refill on your prescription is just to call the refill in to the pharmacy you use. In most cases, if you are out of refills, the pharmacy will contact the prescriber for refills on your behalf. I say "most" cases, because some pharmacies may not do this, or some doctors may not allow it. But those exceptions are rare. I recommend patients allow 1-2 days for this process to occur. Then simply call the pharmacy back and see if the refill is ready.

Always call the pharmacy back before actually going to the pharmacy to pick up your prescription that was previously out of refills. Did you notice the word "always"? It is important. Although your pharmacy may have contacted your doctor...there may be many reasons why the doctor has not called in your refill yet. Save yourself some time, and make a call.

Some (not all) possible reasons why a physician may not routinely authorize a refill on your prescription:

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Read More From Healthproadvice

  1. You don't need it. Some prescriptions, like antibiotics, are intended for one-time treatment. Others are intended for short term therapy only.
  2. You need an appointment. As stated before, the condition you are being treated for needs monitoring. Virtually every major condition and/or disease will change over the course of a patient's life. This needs to be considered, and sometimes the prescription needs to be changed as a result.
  3. You are misusing it. If your doctor writes a prescription intended to last for 6 months, and it is gone in 3 months, something is wrong.

How to Avoid Running Out of Refills

Here are a couple hints from your friendly (well...usually) pharmacist on how to avoid the frustration of running out of refills on your prescription at the pharmacy:

Check your bottle/label for refills. The prescription label should clearly state exactly how many refills your prescription has left. Note: It should also tell you when the prescription will expire (and thus cannot be filled) even if refills are left. Yes, that is right. Typically a prescription will expire in 1 year (sooner for some drugs), and after this time it cannot be refilled—no matter how many refills are left.

If you see "no refills" then make a plan. I suggest writing something on your calendar 6 days before you will be out. Write something like "Call pharmacy for Lipitor refill." Allowing 5-6 days gives you some wiggle room. Two days after you call the pharmacy, call back and see if it is ready. If not, then call your doctor's office yourself. If they tell you they will take care of it, wait 1 more day, then call the pharmacy again just to be sure.