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Wednesday, January 16, 2008 6:00 PM

Navigating Health Care: Ways to Play it Safe with Prescription Medications

Debra: If you’ve ever had a problem remembering the names of your medications, you’re not alone. But it’s dangerous not to know what medications you’re taking because it puts you at added risk for problems with mixing medicines. In this segment on Navigating the Healthcare System, AHRQ Director Dr. Carolyn Clancy talks about how to make sure that you get the right medicine and that you understand how to use it correctly. Welcome, Dr. Clancy.

Dr. Clancy: Thank you.

Debra: Dr. Clancy, please tell us why it’s so important for people to be active and informed consumers - especially when it comes to their medications.

Dr. Clancy: Being involved in your health care is one of the most important things you can do. For example, if your doctor wrote you a prescription for the pain reliever Darvon, would you notice if you got Diovan, a medicine for high blood pressure, by mistake? Unless you check the prescription that your doctor wrote to make sure it matches what’s in the pill bottle you receive from the pharmacy, chances are good that you wouldn’t notice you received the wrong medicine. And these two drugs are just two examples of many medicines whose names look and sound alike.

Debra: What is being done about these potential problems?

Dr. Clancy: The good news is that pharmacies, hospitals and other health care organizations are developing lists so that they can identify these drugs and take steps ahead of time to make sure that doctors are especially careful to print in block letters or use electronic prescribing to reduce the risk of errors from sound-alike drugs. And drug companies are working to reduce the number of medicines with similar-sounding names. But patients need to also take an active role in their health care by asking questions if something doesn’t seem right.

Debra: So what do you recommend patients do to be safer about medications?

Dr. Clancy: AHRQ has developed a consumer checklist about medication safety. So the following are five simple tips you can follow when it comes to your medications: The first is bring a list or a bag with all your medicines when you go to your doctor’s office, the pharmacy, or the hospital. This list or bag should include all prescription and over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, and any herbal supplements that you use. If your doctor prescribes a new medicine, ask if it’s safe to use with your other medicines. And remind your doctor and pharmacist if you are allergic to any medicines. The second tip is to ask questions about your medicines and make sure you understand the answers. Choose a pharmacist and doctor you feel comfortable talking with about your health and medicines. Take a relative or friend with you to ask questions and remind you about the answers later and make sure you write down the answers. The third tip is to make sure your medicine is what the doctor ordered. Does the medicine seem different than what your doctor wrote on the prescription or does it look different than what you expected? Does a refill look like it is a different shape, color, or size than when you had it before? If something seems wrong, ask the pharmacist to double-check it. Most medication errors are first found by patients. The fourth tip is to ask how to use the medicine correctly. Read the directions on the label and other information you get with your medicine. Have the pharmacist or doctor explain anything to you that you do not understand. Are there other medicines, foods, or activities such as driving, drinking alcohol, or using tobacco that you should avoid while using the medicine? Ask if you need lab tests to check how the medicine is working or to make sure it doesn’t cause harmful side effects. The fifth tip is ask about possible side effects. Side effects can occur with many medicines. Ask your doctor or pharmacist what side effects to expect and which ones are serious. Some side effects may bother you but will get better after you’ve been using the medicine for a while. Call your doctor right away if you have a serious side effect or if a side effect does not get better. You may need a change in the medicine or the dose of the same medicine. And finally, don’t take other people’s medicines. Many times it seems like a very good idea: a spouse or relative had the exactly the same symptoms you did, and they just happen to have a few pills lying around, and quite a few people do this. It is usually a bad idea because you can’t know ahead of time if it’s going to adversely interact with medicines you already take.

Debra: So it sounds like people need to be active in their health care, every aspect, including medications.

Dr. Clancy: Absolutely. Whether you have a brief illness or an ongoing medical condition, medicines are designed to help you heal and to make you feel better. And you get the best results from the medications when you take the right ones for your condition - and take them safely.

Debra: Thanks for being here, Dr. Clancy.

Dr. Clancy: My pleasure.

Debra: AHRQ’s medication safety checklist is called "Check Your Medicines," and it’s available online at ahrq.gov/consumer/checkmeds.htm

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