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When It Comes to Prescription Drugs, Get Smart

A well-informed consumer will be a healthy one, too

WEDNESDAY, Nov. 5 (HealthDay News) -- Getting a prescription filled is such a routine task, most people do it without thinking about it.

And that's potentially a big mistake, according to medical experts -- one that could hamper your treatment or, in some cases, do real harm.

Pharmacists and health-care advocates are urging people to make themselves "medicine smart" by asking questions, keeping track of what medications they are taking, and building a relationship with their family pharmacy.

"Patients definitely don't speak up as much as they should," said Joel Zive, a spokesman for the American Pharmacists Association and owner of Zive Pharmacy in New York City. "Patients need to be their own best friend. They need to advocate for themselves at the prescription counter."

People who don't take the time to learn about their medications, both prescribed and over-the-counter, run the risk of misusing them in ways that could damage their health.

For instance, they could suffer a potentially dangerous interaction between two or more drugs, said Ray Bullman, executive vice president of the National Council on Patient Information and Education.

"Although it's a simple question, the related answers are really fairly profound in terms of the expectations of what a consumer can do for themselves, and their roles and responsibilities," Bullman said.

For starters, he suggests that patients keep a detailed list of all the medications they're taking, both prescribed and over-the-counter, and bring that list whenever they visit their doctor or pharmacist.

"We see it as the connection between his [the doctor's] patient and his health-care professionals," Bullman said. "Oftentimes, patients, when they have an office visit, will not have the information available about the medicines they are taking. It is important for their doctor to have that information."

To help keep track of medications, Zive also recommends choosing one pharmacy for all your prescriptions and getting to know the pharmacists there.

"Let's say you're visiting different doctors and they're prescribing you medications separately that could cause an interaction," Zive said. "If you're using one pharmacist, they'll be able to see those potential interactions and other problems, even if you are seeing different doctors."

The National Council on Patient Information and Education recommends bringing a list of questions to be answered by your doctor and pharmacist for each prescription. The questions include:

  • What is the name of the medicine and what is it for? Is this the brand name or the generic name?
  • Is a generic version of this medicine available?
  • How and when do I take it, and for how long?
  • What foods, drinks, other medicines, dietary supplements, or activities should I avoid while taking this medicine?
  • When should I expect the medicine to begin to work, and how will I know if it is working? Are there any tests required with this medicine?
  • Are there any side effects, what are they, and what do I do if they occur?
  • Will this medicine work safely with the other prescription and non-prescription medicines or dietary and herbal supplements I am taking?
  • Do I need to get a refill? When?
  • How should I store this medicine?
  • Is there any written information available about the medicine?

Patients should be ready to jot down the answers for all these questions, Bullman said.

They also should consider writing down the specific nature of their medical complaint before seeing a doctor, as well as any other questions they might have.

"It really is a crib sheet for when you go in," Bullman said. "It helps the consumer frame the particular medical problems they're having. Anecdotally, we've all heard about someone going into a physician's office and they'll be asked what's wrong and they'll respond, 'I'm fine,' without thinking."

When visiting the pharmacy, consumers should be sure to open up the little prescription vial and check out their medications before they leave, Zive added.

"Even if we fill it correctly, sometimes the prescription as written is not what they need or were told by their doctor to expect," he said. "Also, we might fill a prescription with a generic that looks different from the brand name pill, and that can cause some concern when they get home. Better to be assured at the counter."

Finally, people should understand that all drugs have risks as well as benefits, and be ready to have a frank discussion with their health-care professionals about those risks, Bullman said.

"We're encouraging them to raise that issue and have that dialogue with the prescriber about risks versus benefits," he said. "There may be an alternative medication to the one the patient is taking that would better suit their lifestyle."

More information

To learn more visit the National Council on Patient Information and Education.

SOURCES: Ray Bullman, executive vice president, the National Council on Patient Information and Education, Bethesda, Md.; Joel Zive, owner and pharmacist, Zive Pharmacy, New York City, and spokesman, American Pharmacists Association, Washington, D.C.

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