by Linda Richards, RD, MS
If you’re like many people, there will be times when you wonder if you’re doing all you can when it comes to taking your medicines safely. Do you know enough about the possible side effects of the medicines you’re taking? Are you sure about the dose? Did you get the correct medicine at the pharmacy? Are you storing your medicines properly?
It makes good sense to be concerned. According to a 1999 report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM), approximately 7,000 individuals die each year in the United States because of errors related to their medicines. Countless others experience a medicine-related problem or develop a new medical condition due to drug treatment. Sometimes the problem is unforeseeable.
Other times, however, the health professional prescribing or dispensing the drug makes a mistake. Or the person taking it makes a mistake or doesn’t take the drug as prescribed. Here are some ways to help you avoid these types of problems and take your medicines as safely as possible.
To make sure you’re getting the right drug and that you understand why you’re taking it and how you should take it, you need to ask questions at the doctor’s office and at the pharmacy.
At the doctor’s office. You’ve probably experienced doctor visits where you walked out with a new prescription and realized you didn’t really understand what it was. Perhaps the physician or the assistant hurriedly handed you the prescription before going out the door, or maybe you didn’t want to take up the doctor’s valuable time, and so you didn’t ask about the drug.
Number one rule: It’s your responsibility to know about your medicines. Don’t be shy about taking time to ask your doctor questions about a new prescription. If you don’t understand something, ask the doctor to go over it again. You might want to bring a paper and pencil to your appointments so you can write down the doctor’s answers — studies show that most of us forget within 10 minutes what the doctor actually said.
Here’s a list of useful questions.
Ask if the doctor has printed instructions you can take home with you. Finally, look at the prescription before you leave the doctor’s office — if you can’t read it, chances are your pharmacist can’t either.
At the pharmacy. Pharmacies follow strict safety measures to decipher the prescription and deliver you the right medicine at the right dose. Still, some pharmacists are rushed, filling up to 500 prescriptions daily. They also must decipher the scrawled handwriting of numerous physicians, and some drugs have pretty similar names. Errors at the pharmacy are uncommon, but they do happen. Help yourself avoid them by checking the medicines you receive. In addition, prescription labels can be confusing. Surveys have shown that a common error occurs when patients misinterpret the dosage, for example, when they mistake a teaspoon for a tablespoon.
Here are some tips to keep in mind about filling prescriptions:
And don’t forget that you can always call your pharmacist (or doctor) later if you still have questions.
Last Reviewed on June 15, 2011
Linda Richards is a freelance health writer based in Alpine, California.
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