A psychological study is to be conducted into whether people take daily medications to stay alive or improve their lifestyle.
A team from Massey University's School of Psychology in Auckland will manage the project in an attempt to determine whether some medication consumption is "life-saving or life-styling", team member Kerry Chamberlain said.
He said the team would consider all forms of medications, medical drugs, alternative medicines and dietary supplements
"It aims to develop new knowledge about the meanings of medications, their safety and risk, and the influence of media and social processes in their use and misuse."
Professor Chamberlain said the role of medication had become increasingly complex with direct advertising of pharmacy drugs, the influx of over-the-counter medications, internet-based medical information as well as the profusion of alternative medicines, natural remedies and dietary supplements.
He said the potential for harmful impacts on health through the misuse of medication was a key consideration of the study.
"We know little about what happens with medications when taken home, why people do what they do with medications, or how they are understood by people."
Previous studies had shown that overall adherence to medication regimes was only about 50 per cent.
The need for a study was imperative in an age in which "the boundaries between drugs, food and dietary supplements are blurring," Professor Chamberlain said.
"The ingestion of many substances is increasingly considered to be a routine practice, like eating an apple or having a drink of water, rather than taking a pill in a traditional medical sense."
The wide range of medical issues frequently covered in the news media, such as the debate over funding for breast cancer drug Herceptin, meant consumers often found it hard to make sense of conflicting views, he said.
The study will recognise that "medications have `social lives' as well as pharmacological lives".
"Once in the hands of people, they represent not only relief from suffering or the maintenance of health, but also represent identity, morality, relationships, care, healing and hope, among other things."