Column by Carolyn Ma: 12 tips for managing medications during a pandemic

From a pharmacist perspective, what is the best medication advice I can give you during for this unprecedented event? Here are a few tips to keep in mind as we weather the pandemic.

This column is part of a series on the COVID-19 health crisis written by expert faculty, admin, and staff at UH Hilo.

By Carolyn Ma
Dean and Associate Professor, Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy
University of Hawai‘i at Hilo

Carolyn Ma
Carolyn Ma

Throughout my career I’ve had a variety of different jobs, but I am first and foremost a health care provider, specifically a registered pharmacist who started as a clinician in the area of cancer medicines. During any crisis, whether it be hurricane, tsunami or health-care pandemic, my pharmacist hat always comes on and my primary concern is to make sure patients and loved ones continue to benefit from safe and effective administration of medications.

In recent weeks we have all been bombarded with health information, and the impact has been magnified by being confined to our homes. Time spent in front of computer and TV screens has shot up, and the result hasn’t necessarily been good. How do we decipher all the health-care information coming at us? From a pharmacist perspective, what is the best medication advice I can give you during for this unprecedented event?

In this most abnormal time, it’s important to try to behave as normally as you can. Since supply chains continue to be open, there is no need to panic or hoard. But there are a few tips to keep in mind as we weather the pandemic:

  1. Keep a list of all the medications you or your loved one is taking. List medications by name, dose, route, and how often you are taking the medicine. It can also be helpful to add a note as to medication condition or reason why you are taking it, since some medications can be used to treat different types of diseases.
  2. List all the pharmacies that you have your prescription filled at since it is not unusual for someone to utilize different pharmacies depending upon location, hours of operation or personal preference. Your pharmacy can also, in an emergency, provide a hospital or provider with a list filled prescriptions.
  3. Try to have an extra month of medications in case of emergency, but don’t hoard large quantities of your prescription medications.
  4. If you have an extra supply of medications, keep them stored as directed on the label. For instance, if a medication requires refrigeration or low light, check to see the medicine appears to be a normal color, and the pills or capsules are intact and not melted together.
  5. Check the expiration date(s) before taking stored medications. Most expired medications will not be harmful, but their effect or usefulness may be compromised.
  6. If you are having difficulty due to unemployment or re-budgeting of your finances for other essential items, discuss this with your pharmacist. He or she may be able to contact an insurance company for waivers, increase days of supply or help you to find an assistance program.
  7. When calling a provider to approve refills, allow extra time since they may be busy taking care of very sick patients or have reduced their hours and may take longer to respond.
  8. If you can’t get ahold of your provider, then often times your pharmacist can make that call for you and they may be trying to batch all refill calls to a provider at one time.
  9. If you are calling a pharmacy for refills, allow a bit more time as they may need to call a distributor for more medications. Even if a refill may be called in a few days earlier, most pharmacies are willing to refill on the authorized date and it helps them better manage inventory.
  10. In cases of medication shortages, pharmacists may be able to provide a medication alternative to your provider or to you if it is an over-the-counter medication. They may be able to point out a less expensive drug if your current one is not available.
  11. If you are experiencing any side effects, talk to your pharmacist over the phone. There may also be opportunities consult with medical staff via telemedicine.
  12. Get immunized if you have not already been.

One last word of caution: Only take medications prescribed by your primary-care giver. Choosing the correct medications is a complex decision and prescribed medications are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration only after they have been proven through human trials to be effective and safe. We are all interested in finding treatments for COVID-19 and knowing when a vaccine will be available, but until the U.S. Centers for Disease Control approves treatments, it’s best to not try medications without clinical verification of efficacy and safety.


Carolyn Ma’s areas of interest include pharmacy and interprofessional education and academia, experiential learning, human papilloma virus vaccination and health care policy and legislation. She received her Doctor of Pharmacy degree from the University of California at San Francisco and completed a Clinical Pharmacy Residency at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and an Oncology Pharmacy Specialty Residency at The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.