Medication safety: What you need to know

Aug 26, 2009 at 5:13 a.m. ET

Medications serve a distinct purpose but there are things that we do -- or don't do -- that can cause them to not be safe. Here are some tips to help make sure your medication works for you at its optimum level.


Know why you are taking the medication

Ask questions! It's your body so you should know what's going into it.

"When it comes to medication safety, you need to know as much as possible about your medications, including over-the-counter and herbal therapies," says pharmacist Lisa Meny, PharmD, a director of a program that works to improve patient health through medication therapy management in Lansing, Michigan. "Patients should specifically learn the names of their medications and why they are taking them."

You can also ask your healthcare provider about the goals of treatment and, specifically, what the medication aims to do.

Get to know your pharmacist

"Thousands of people every year end up in the hospital, fail to get better and spend more money than they should because their meds were not managed properly. People who simply know their pharmacist's name are more likely to have better medication use habits," says John O'Brien, PharmD, assistant professor of clinical and administrative sciences at the College of Notre Dame School of Pharmacy in Maryland. "Unfortunately, nearly three times as many consumers surveyed are on a first name basis with their hair dresser than they are their pharmacist."

Get Your prescriptions filled at one pharmacy

Using a single pharmacy for all of your medication needs will help keep you safe, says Meny. "Every time you come into the pharmacy, your pharmacist will be able to check all your medication records and ensure that your new prescription or the over-the-counter medicine you are considering will not interact with each other and be effective."

Meny says if your prescriptions are at multiple pharmacies, those pharmacists are not able to have the full picture of your health, which can be dangerous and potentially lead to serious problems.

"Your pharmacist is there to keep you safe and monitor your health," Meny says "By your pharmacist personally knowing you, and you knowing and trusting your pharmacist, you are making a very positive step to improving your well-being."

According to CVS/pharmacy, filling your prescriptions in one location will help you avoid polypharmacy, also known as duplicate therapies. Polypharmacy means "many drugs" and refers to problems that can occur when a patient is taking more medications than are actually needed. It is a particular concern for older adults, CVS/pharmacy reports.

Stick to your medication schedule

CVS/pharmacy reports that according to the American Heart Association, up to 10 percent of all hospital admissions are a direct result of a patient's failure to take prescription medications correctly.

For medications to work effectively, they need to be taken on schedule.

"Between 50 and 75 percent of Americans do not typically follow their doctors' orders when it comes to taking their prescription drugs, especially long-term medicines for chronic diseases," O'Brien says. "You should always ask your pharmacist when and how am I supposed to take my medicine, for how long, and when should I come in to pick up a refill. It is also a good idea to ask what you should do if you forget to take your medicine, and how to reach your pharmacist if you have other questions or think I may be having a problem."

If you do happen to miss a dose, it's best to call the pharmacy (if it's not open, look for a 24-hour location) to get feedback from the pharmacist about the next step.

If you have trouble keeping track of when to take your medications, get a watch with an alarm and set it to go off when your medications are due. There are also various automatic medication reminders with dispensers on the market that can help.

CVS/pharmacy suggests that you try to take your medications during other rituals in your day, such as the same time that you brush your teeth or eat breakfast.

If it becomes too complicated, check with your doctor to see if a different formulation is available such as a longer acting dosage or a larger dose instead of two small ones.

"Taking medicines as directed could prevent two-thirds of hospital admissions for heart disease and reduce deaths from such diseases as breast cancer and asthma," O'Brien says.

Don't become a statistic

According to CVS/pharmacy, the American Heart Association estimates that 12 percent of all Americans don't take their medications after getting a prescription and another 12 percent don't fill their prescriptions in the first place.

The top reasons why people are non-compliant are as follows:

  • You forget to fill your medication.
    • Keep track of your dosing schedule on your daily calendar or journal. Pill organizers can also be helpful, but be sure not to use them in a house where there are children, since they are not childproof.
  • The medication doesn't make you feel any different.
    • Just because you don't feel different, doesn't mean it isn't working. Oftentimes, medications take weeks to begin to have a therapeutic effect. It's important to follow up with your healthcare provider if you have doubts about taking a medication or have concerns that it might not be working.
  • Bad side effects can sometimes prevent one from taking medications. Talk to your healthcare provider or pharmacist about safe ways to counteract these side effects or see if another medication might be available.
  • Money! If medications cost too much, oftentimes people won't buy them. Talk to your pharmacist or health care provider about generic options to help you save some cash.

**Please ensure to check with your healthcare providor before taking any medications or supplements or making changes to your diet. This article is for informational purposes only and should in no way replace advice from your healthcare provider.