Tips for Taking Medicines
By Carolyn M. Clancy,
January 2, 2008
If your doctor wrote you a
prescription for the pain reliever Darvon, would
you know if you received Diovan, a medicine for
high blood pressure, by mistake? Unless you’re a
health professional or you carefully read both
the doctor’s prescription and your medicine
bottle at the drug store, chances are you would
not know you got the wrong medicine.
Many medicines have names
that look or sound alike. To limit the risk of
confusing two drugs, hospitals and health care
organizations have developed lists so they can
identify these drugs and make sure you get the
right one. Companies that make drugs are also
working to reduce the number of medicines with
But many medication errors
are found by patients. As an involved health
consumer, you can take steps to make sure you
get the right medicine and understand how to use
it. To help you, my agency, the Agency for
Healthcare Research and Quality, has developed a
checklist for taking medication safely. We
recommend that you:
- Bring a list or a bag
with all your medicines when you go to the
doctor’s office, pharmacy, or hospital. Make
sure you include all prescription and
over-the-counter medicines as well as
vitamins and supplements. If your doctor
prescribes a new medicine, ask if it is safe
to take it with your other medicines.
- Ask questions about
your medicines. Choose a pharmacist and
doctor you feel comfortable with. Ask them
to use plain language when they answer your
questions. If you think you’ll need help,
have a friend or relative come with you to
ask questions and remind you of the answers.
- Make sure your
medicine is what your doctor ordered.
Because many drugs have names that sound or
look alike, your doctor and pharmacist
should take steps to prevent mix-ups. But
it’s always wise to double-check. Ask your
pharmacist if you think the medicine you
received is different than what your doctor
told you or wrote on the order. If you are
getting a refill, make sure the medicine
looks the same as the kind you got before.
- Ask how to use the
medicine correctly. Read the directions on
the label, and ask your pharmacist or doctor
to explain anything you don’t understand.
Find out if there are medicines, foods, or
activities (like driving or using alcohol or
tobacco) you should avoid when taking the
medicine. Ask if you need to have a test to
check if the medicine is working or is
causing a side effect.
- Ask about possible
side effects. "Side effects" are reactions,
like getting an upset stomach after taking
an antibiotic, that aren’t part of the
intended effect of the medicine. Side
effects can occur with many medicines. Ask
your doctor or pharmacist if your medicine
can cause side effects, what types of side
effects you should watch for, and whether
they are likely to be serious. Some side
effects, like dizziness, may go away after
you have been taking a medicine for a while.
Call your doctor if you have a side effect
that is serious or does not get better. Your
doctor may need to change your medicine or
adjust the dose.
Whether you have a brief
illness or an ongoing medical condition,
medicines are meant to help you. You can get the
best results from medicines when you take the
right ones and take them safely.
I’m Dr. Carolyn Clancy,
and that’s my advice on how to navigate the
health care system.
Institute for Safe
List of Confused Drug Names
Healthcare Research and Quality
Check Your Medicines: Tips for Taking
as of January 2008
Taking Medicines Safely. Navigating the
Health Care System: Advice Columns from Dr.
Carolyn Clancy, January 2, 2008. Agency for
Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.