Be Smart About Taking Medicines

Prescription medicines have become like new cars and breakfast cereals. Many of them are being marketed directly to the public through ads on television and in magazines. Some medicines get so much free publicity they don't need to be advertised.

Smart consumers should use ads as motivation to learn more about their own illnesses and choices for treatment. Often when people read ads for medicines they have many unanswered questions. You should always check with your healthcare providers to get answers to those questions. Also find out if the advertised medicine is right for you or just different than what you are already taking.

Medicines have the power to fight disease and improve quality of life. Many also have serious side effects. Deciding whether the benefits are better than the risks depends on several factors:

  • Your age. Your body uses many medicines in different ways as you get older.

  • Your lifestyle. For example, you may need to avoid medicines that make you sleepy if you operate machinery, and avoid other medicines if you smoke.

  • Diseases or conditions you may have. A medicine that helps one condition may make another one worse.

  • Pregnancy or possible pregnancy. Pregnancy needs careful prescribing and decision-making between the woman and her healthcare provider.

  • Possible medicine and food interactions. The medicine's effect may be made stronger or weaker by other medicines, supplements you take, or foods you eat.

Knowing as much as you can about the medicines you take, or think you should take, is especially important if you are a member of a consumer-directed health plan like a medical savings account. These plans place more responsibility for healthcare decisions on your shoulders.

Do your homework

When deciding whether a medicine is right for you, be aware that any medicine can have side effects. Magazine and newspaper ads for medicines contain summaries of prescription information. These include warnings of possible interactions and side effects. TV commercials usually provide toll-free numbers you can call for information or direct you to a print ad. If the medicine is sold over the counter instead of by prescription, the summary is provided inside the package.

In-depth information about prescription drugs can be found in the PDR (Physician’s Desk Reference). This huge reference is updated every year and is available at larger bookstores, public libraries, and on the Internet. It has the information in the package insert sent with the medicine to the pharmacist. Reading and understanding this information may be difficult for the average person.

Pharmacists are a valuable resource for information about your medicines. Pharmacists can translate the difficult information about a medicine into terms you can understand.

Keep an open mind

If you believe you could benefit from a certain medicine that you have heard or read about, talk to your healthcare provider or pharmacist. Either one may know if your current medicine is the best for you or may know of another medicine that is better or less expensive to treat your condition or symptoms.

Many conditions need you to make changes in your lifestyle in addition to, or instead of, taking a medicine. For example, you may have to change your diet to try to lower your cholesterol before a medicine that lowers cholesterol is prescribed.

Make sure your insurance plan covers the medicine. If it doesn't, you may be able to get the medicine by paying part or all of the cost. Or another medicine the plan covers may be a good substitute.

Get informed

If your healthcare provider prescribes a medicine, find out what you need to do to get the best results. Ask your healthcare provider what benefits you can expect from the medicine. Understand when and how you should take it. Find out about possible side effects and what you should do about them. Many pharmacists provide computer printouts with general information about medicines. This includes when and how often to take them, whether to take them on a full or empty stomach, and other important information.

Talk with your healthcare provider or pharmacist as soon as possible if you're not getting the results you expect or are having any type of unexpected side effects. Keep taking the medicine, though, until you can talk to your healthcare provider and follow his or her advice about stopping or changing your medicines. Even if a new medicine is prescribed, you have to take it in order to know if it will work or have different side effects than the medicine you took before.

If you see more than one healthcare provider (like a family doctor and a heart specialist) and a new medicine is prescribed, be certain to let your other healthcare provider know. If possible, it is also best to fill all of your prescription medicines at the same pharmacy.   

When it comes to your health, be an educated and responsible patient and consumer.