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Tips for Taking Medicines Safely

Posted Aug 24 2008 1:49pm
ANNOUNCER: Prescription medications save lives and help improve the quality of life for many people. But medicines can also pose a danger when they are not used correctly.

Carolyn Clancy, MD: Prescription drug errors are a major problem and potentially touch the lives of all Americans. By one estimate, there are about a quarter of a million medication errors committed per year in the outpatient setting alone.

ANNOUNCER: Errors can be relatively insignificant: minor side effects that a patient wasn't warned about. Or more serious: A patient may end up taking the wrong medication, or the wrong dose, or no medicine at all.

CHRISTINE KOVNER PhD, RN: The biggest cause of prescription drug errors, I think, is a lack of communication. And that's a lack of communication between physicians and nurses, physicians and patients and families, patients and families and patients and nurses.

ANNOUNCER: That's why experts say: Ask lots of questions. It's the first item on a medicine safety checklist prepared by the US government's Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Carolyn Clancy, MD: I think many people are reluctant to ask questions, because it's very, very clear that doctors and all healthcare professionals are very pressed for time these days. Oftentimes, people, including me, think of a question after they leave, and then it's not really clear who to call.

ANNOUNCER: Often doctors don't know all the medicines a patient is taking. So the second item on the safety checklist is: Bring them in.

GREGG S. MEYER, MD: Another very simple step that's very effective that I love my patients to do is come in the office with a brown bag. Take all the medications you're actively taking, put them in the bag. Bring them to your doctor's office, put them on the desk and go through them. It takes only moments, but the improvement to your safety is really, really important.

ANNOUNCER: Vitamins, herbs, over-the-counter, and alternative medicines of any kind, should also be checked.

GREGG S. MEYER, MD: Many of these supplements are relatively benign and don't have any interactions, but some do, and some of those interactions can be important and can influence the safety of medications that your doctor may prescribe for you.

ANNOUNCER: Keeping track of your medications also means having that information available when a doctor might need it quickly. While your pharmacist may be able to print out a list, the task becomes more complicated as people use multiple drug stores, and order drugs online.

Carolyn Clancy, MD: People should have a list of their medications with them. You never know when an emergency is going to come up,and knowing what medicines you're on is incredibly helpful information.

ANNOUNCER: Item three on the safety checklist is: Make sure your medicine is what was ordered, and that you know how to take it.

DAVID BATES, MD: It's always an important thing when you get your medicines from the pharmacy to go over them and make sure that they all look familiar. Most of the time, if you get something that doesn't look familiar, it'll be because the pharmacy has substituted a generic drug for a brand name prescription that the doctor wrote, and generally that's fine.

But once in a while the pharmacy does dispense a medication that's different than the one that the doctor intended. So it's very important to go through the medications you receive when you get them.

ANNOUNCER: Most medicines have side effects. Safety checkmark four is: Ask about them.

DAVID BATES, MD: I think it's important for the patient to ask, if their physician doesn't volunteer, "Doctor, what are the side effects of this new drug that you're suggesting?" The pharmacists also have good information about that and are typically very happy to share that kind of information with patients. And it's important when you're having a side effect to let your doctor know about that and share it with him so that you can decide together about what to do next.

ANNOUNCER: Sometimes the effects of medicines must be monitored. Safety item five is: Check whether you need laboratory tests.

DAVID BATES, MD: Lab tests are important for a whole variety of medications now, and it's hard for physicians to remember to do all the testing that makes a difference.

Carolyn Clancy, MD: There are a number of medications that are incredibly important in terms of keeping people healthy or helping them prevent bad outcomes like strokes, blood clots, and so forth, but those medications also require careful monitoring.

ANNOUNCER: Another factor contributing to prescription drug errors is: The prescription.

GREGG S. MEYER, MD: Again, one of the most important things patients can do is they can ask questions. If you do get a handwritten prescription, look at it and read it. If you're having trouble understanding what it says, it's likely the pharmacist may have that same trouble. Ask for another copy of it; ask for one to be printed out, because that can really make a difference.

ANNOUNCER: Medicines can be powerful aids to help keep us well. But experts remind us, using them correctly requires checking and double checking, on the part of the doctor, the pharmacist, and the patient.

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