As I look at the new hepatitis C medications that have gotten U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval this past year, I notice a sunny color theme with orange (Harvoni®) and yellow (Sovaldi®) pills. Digging a little deeper, it turns out that there is a surprising body of research showing that the color of a pill can influence a patient’s expectations and even adherence to treatment.
The placebo effect comes into play with medication colors and expectations about effectiveness and side effects, as a recent article in The Atlantic pointed out. “Studies have shown that we associate drug colors with specific effects that stretch far beyond brand recognition. Once we’ve tricked our brains into making the association, it actually becomes real,” explains Tessa Fiorini Cohen in The Atlantic.
Why isn’t every medication just a plain white pill? There are some practical advantages to a variety of medication appearance. For example, the coloring of a pill can block light, in order to minimize degradation of light-sensitive compounds. In addition, the look of each pill can help patients and their caregivers recognize each pill to ensure that the correct medication is being administered.
Once a patient has used a medication with a certain look for awhile, change can be hard. For instance, one study found that when heart disease patients were prescribed generic medications – and those generic pills had a different color and shape from fill to fill – the variation led to a greater risk of the patients stopping treatment. It turns out that a ‘pill of a different color’ really can make a difference in patient adherence.