Information is the Best Medicine…Guarding against 'prescription errors'

Glenn Ellis
Glenn Ellis

Medication errors are one of the most common medical errors. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 1.3 million people are injured annually in the United States following so-called “medication errors.”
The only way you can make informed decisions and use medicines safely is to know what information is important to obtain from health professionals, how to incorporate the medicine into your daily lifestyle, how to manage side effects, when to seek medical help and how to keep track of important information for the doctor and pharmacist.
Ask your doctor why you need the medicine being prescribed and how it is going to help you. Discuss any concerns you have about taking the medicine so that you have all the information you need to decide whether you want to take it. If you do not want to take the medicine, discuss this with your doctor so that a treatment more acceptable to you can be prescribed.
The average person forgets 50 percent of what the doctor tells them by the time they arrive at the pharmacy. So ask the pharmacist to go over all the instructions again. Be sure you know how to administer the medicine correctly. Some medicines, such as inhalers that treat asthma, require complicated steps. Your doctor and pharmacist can show you the steps to follow when using an inhaler so that the medicine will reach your lungs and not get sprayed on the back of your throat where it will not work. You may want to ask the pharmacist to let you practice using the inhaler in the pharmacy.
A prescription label that states “Take 1 tablet 3 times a day” does not give you enough information. Ask your doctor or pharmacist to help you determine the best times to take the medication so you can easily work the dosage schedule into your daily activities, meal times and work. You will find it easier to remember to take your medicine if it fits in with your normal lifestyle.  Try not to adjust your medicine or skip doses without discussing this first with your doctor or pharmacist. Some medicines can cause very serious side effects if they are stopped suddenly.
Many prescription medicines can interact with other meds as well as with over-the-counter products and herbal remedies. Your doctor and pharmacist should review all of your medicines at each visit and make sure that you are not taking any prescription medicines that can adversely interact.
If you think you are having a side effect and don’t know what to do, call your doctor or pharmacist. You also need to tell them if you have done anything to try to treat it –  such as skipping a dose, stopping the medicine, or taking an over-the-counter or herbal remedy.
Some people find it helpful to keep a “medicine diary” they can take with them to their next doctor and pharmacy visit. This diary can help you remember important information to tell your doctor so the doctor can decide if you really had a side effect or if the symptom may have been caused by something else. Your diary can also help remind you of important questions you want to ask.
Some medicines must be stored away from heat, light or moisture in order to keep their strength. Transdermal patches should not be thrown away where children can find them and put them on like Band-Aids. If you are traveling in a car during hot weather, don’t store your medicines in the glove compartment; the heat can destroy the medicine and it may not work.
Select your pharmacist with the same care that you select your doctor. Be sure at each pharmacy visit to tell the pharmacist if you have had any problems with any of your medicines. Your pharmacist can often provide helpful advice.
You should expect to receive written information from the pharmacy that you can take home. Keep this information in a place where you can find it if you need it. However, the written instructions should never  take the place of personal counseling. You need your questions answered so you can manage your medicines safely.
Find out how many days in advance you should order your refills. Ask your pharmacist to develop a program to help remind you to get your refills.
If you are having trouble remembering to take your medicine, it is important to let your doctor know. Otherwise, your doctor may think that the medicine is not working and may prescribe another medicine that is less effective or has more side effects. All that really may be needed is a more convenient dosage schedule for you.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Asking questions if you have any suspicions at all is a free and easy way to ensure that you don’t become the victim of a medication error.
Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.
DISCLAIMER: The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.)
 Glenn Ellis, is a regular media contributor on Health Equity and Medical Ethics. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. Listen to him every Saturday at 9 a.m. (EST) on  www.900amwurd.com, and Sundays at 8:30 a.m. (EST) on www.wdasfm.com. For more good health information, visit: glennellis.com

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