Prescription medicines: asking the right questions to keep you informed

pillsThis week is National Drug Facts Week (January 26th-February 1st), and in partnership with The American Recall Center, I’d like to highlight some key tips for better understanding the prescription medicine you’ve been prescribed.  It’s not uncommon for people to leave their medical appointment without genuinely understanding why they’ve been given a prescription, and/or how it will work or feel if taken regularly.  As a mental health provider I may help people explore the possibility of taking a medicine to help them better manage their mood, ability to sleep, etc. in conjunction with psychotherapy, coaching, and/or other health modifications like exercise, changes in work-life balance, or diet.  I support them in taking an active role in managing their health, and understanding the risks and gains of the various decisions they may choose.

Over the past 15 years in my work in healthcare, some of the most common concerns people have expressed to me about taking an antidepressant is the impact it may have on their sexual functioning, weight gain/loss, ability to experience ‘normal’ emotions, or fear of becoming ‘dependent’ on it over time.  Others are concerned it could interfere with their active lifestyle or prevent them from enjoying alcohol or other recreational choices.  It’s normal to have reservations about starting any new medication.  If you don’t feel comfortable discussing your concerns with your prescribing provider you may miss out on the significant benefits it could provide you, by opting not to take it out of misunderstanding or fear.

The following list is a helpful guideline to have with you during your health appointment, and/or when you pick up your prescription from the pharmacy.  It can help to bring it to your appointment, and write down your provider’s responses as a way to make the most informed decision possible.

Be proactive:  gather as much information as you can before you leave your appointment

What is the name of the medicine, and for what specific reasons should I take it?

What is the name of the condition this medicine will treat?

How long will it take to work?

How should I store the medicine? Does it need to be refrigerated?

Can the pharmacist substitute a cheaper, generic form of the medicine?

Will the medicine create conflicts with other medicines, herbs or supplements or recreational substances I use?

Find out how you are supposed to take it for optimal effect:

When and how often should I take this medicine? As needed, or on a specific schedule?

Do I take the medicine before, with, or between meals?

How long will I have to take it?

Know what to expect while taking this new medicine:

How will I feel once I start taking this medicine?

How will I know if this medicine is working in the way that it should?

What side effects might I expect to experience? Will they go away?  How long might it take for any side effects to subside, if at all?

Ask how this new medicine fits in with any other other medicines or substances you take:

Are there other medicines or activities I should avoid while taking this medicine?

Will this medicine change how my other medicines work? (Ask about both prescription AND over-the-counter substances you take, even if it’s only occasionally or rarely)

Will this medicine change how any of my herbal or dietary supplements work?

Ask if your new medicine interferes with eating or drinking.

Are there any foods or liquids that I shouldn’t drink or eat?

Can I drink alcohol or other use recreational substances like marijuana while taking this medicine? How much is generally safe/unsafe?

Is it OK to eat or drink food before or after I take the medicine?
Other important questions to ask:

If I forget to take it, what should I do?

What should I do if I feel I want to stop taking this medicine? Is it safe to just stop or do I need to gradually stop taking it?

Always call and check in with your doctor or pharmacist if:

You have questions or you are confused/uncertain about the directions for taking your medicine.
You are having side effects from the medicine. Do not stop taking the medicine without telling your doctor. You may need a different dose or a different medicine.
Your medicine looks different than you expected.
Your refill medicine is different than what you usually get.

References
Your medicine: Be smart. Be safe. Patient Guide. AHRQ Publication No. 11-0049-A, April 2011. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD, and the National Council on Patient Information and Education, Rockville, MD. Accessed May 10, 2014.

NIH Senior Health. Taking medicines safely. January 2011. Accessed May 10, 2014.

Update Date: 5/11/2014
Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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