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Ask doctors, pharmacists for medication details

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Dear readers:

This week’s column continues our discussion of medication and older adults. The question is: What can we do to reduce chances of medication errors and complications?

We know that as we age, we take more medicine. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey of more than 17,000 older adults found that of the 89 percent taking prescription drugs in the past year, nearly half (46 percent) take five or more; more than half (54 percent) have more than one doctor who prescribes medicine; and about one-third (35 percent) use more than one pharmacy.

There’s more: Among those with at least three chronic conditions, nearly 75 percent take five or more medications regularly. And 40 percent told researchers they had not taken all of their prescribed drugs because of costs. They also stopped taking their medications because they felt the drugs were not helping them or they didn’t think they needed them.

These facts reinforce the need for patients and caregivers to assume some responsibility for safe and effective use of drugs.

One way is to ask the right questions of the right people. Here are some suggestions:

Questions for your doctor:

What is the name of the medication?

Why am I taking it?

What medical condition does this medicine treat?

What are the side effects?

When do I start and stop taking it?

If the bottle says, “take four times a day” does that mean four times in 24 hours or four times during daytime?

What should I do if I miss a dose?

Will this drug work safely with my other medications?

Are there actions I can take not related to drugs that can help my symptoms – in addition to, or instead of, this drug?

Are there other medications I can use? How do they compare in safety, effectiveness and cost?

Questions for your pharmacist:

Will the prescribed drug and dosage interfere with any other drug, food or vitamin I am taking?

Can I have the prescription label and directions written in large type?

Could you give me a non-childproof cap?

Is this drug the right one for my condition and not another drug with a similar name?

Is this drug on a list of medications that older people should not take?

Can you check all the medications on my patient profile, including over-the-counter and nonprescription drugs, to avoid drug interactions?

Before leaving your pharmacist:

• Check the label on your medicine.

• Make sure your name is on it.

• Be certain the directions are the same as the directions you discussed with your doctor. If not, tell the pharmacist.

• Be sure you read and understand the directions.

Playing it safe:

• Do not give your medications to friends or family members.

• Unless you get an OK from your doctor, don’t drink beer, wine or hard liquor while you are taking the medications.

• Discard drugs with an expired date.

The final topic is how to dispose of old medicines safely. The American Pharmacists Association and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offer these suggestions:

• Do not flush unused medication down the toilet. Recent environmental impact studies indicate that drugs can hurt the environment. However, certain medications should be flushed due to their potential for abuse. Check with your pharmacist.

• When getting rid of unused medicine, crush the solid ones or dissolve them in water, or mix them with coffee grinds, kitty litter or sawdust (to make it less appealing for pets and children to eat). Then place it in a sealed plastic bag and toss in the trash. (Some pharmacists disagree with this technique, noting that this is just placing diluted drugs in our landfills.)

• Remove your name from the prescription label. Torrance Memorial Medical Center’s Advantage Program is offering a free seminar on “Questions for the Pharmacist” from noon to 1 p.m. March 1. Call 310-517-4666 for reservations.

Many of these tips are “ageless” and useful for everyone.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

In the late 1800s, Dr. William Osler, the second medical school faculty member at Johns Hopkins University, was quoted as saying, “The person who takes medicine must recover twice, once from the disease and once from the medicine.”

Let’s make sure the latter isn’t necessary.

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