Drug side effects are one of the most frequent causes of hospitalization in the U.S. Some of these side effects occur due to mistakes by a doctor or pharmacist, while others occur when patients take their medicines incorrectly.
Either way, your best protection is to learn as much as possible about every drug you’re prescribed.
Doctor-Patient Communication is a Must
Ideally, your doctor would give you all the drug information you need. That doesn’t always happen, though. Many patients leave the doctor’s office without knowing even the most basic information, such as how many times a day to take the drug or whether it should be taken with food.
Under managed care, the drug information problem is only getting worse. The length of the average doctor’s appointment continues to decrease, with many appointments now lasting less than 10 minutes. That means the doctor has less time to explain things.
Good doctors still make the effort. When you walk out of the office, you should know the generic and brand names of any drug you’ve been prescribed. You should also know the dosage, how to take it and what to do if you miss a dose. The doctor should also explain common side effects, as well as the symptoms that suggest a serious problem – and what to do if they appear.
Many doctors and clinics now offer patient handouts that explain medications. They’re a great idea as long as they’re written in plain English – and if they aren’t used as a substitute for the brief question-and-answer session that should be a part of every doctor’s appointment.
Don’t Forget Your Pharmacist
Another good source of drug information is your pharmacist. He/she should be able to answer virtually all drug-related questions. Be sure to ask him for the “package insert” that comes with the drug.
Although the typical insert is written in “medicalese” that goes over the average person’s head, look through it anyway. It wouldn’t hurt to keep it around, too, should a problem develop later on.
Do Your Part
Be sure to list for your doctor and pharmacist every medicine you’re taking. That goes for over-the-counter as well as herbal preparations, since these can interact – sometimes with serious, even fatal, results – with prescribed drugs. What they don’t know could hurt you.
Have all your prescriptions filled at one pharmacy, ideally one with a computerized prescription system to cut down on mistakes. There, your entire medical history – including any drug allergies you might have – will be contained within a single file. Your pharmacist will be able to spot any potential drug interaction or allergic reaction.
Managed care is affecting pharmacists as well as doctors. Independent drugstores, which often provide the most personalized attention, are being squeezed out by the big chains and mail-order houses, which offer HMOs deep discounts.
Chain stores and mail-order drugs may save you money. However, you probably won’t get much drug information from them. That means you must do more homework and find resources. Fortunately, several good consumer guides to drugs are available, including Joe and Teresa Graedon’s The People’s Pharmacy.
You can also get reliable drug information via the internet. If you have access to a computer at home or at your local library, do a Google search for RxList and Aetna InteliHealth online.