Patients Should Give More Attention to Prescription Labels

Proper understanding can reduce risk of adverse drug effects

DAYTON, Ohio (August 12, 2013) – Following the directions on a prescription drug label is an important part of a person’s good health.

According to the Institute of Medicine, tens of millions of people in the U.S. use prescription and over-the-counter medications – and every year at least 1.5 million suffer adverse effects. These problems occur because people misunderstand medication labels, are unaware of drug interactions or otherwise use medications improperly, the institute stated.

Just this spring, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a new regulation to make sure all over-the-counter drug labels look similar and provide the same information to consumers. The new labeling is expected to hit shelves soon. Meanwhile, patients will still have to navigate through the ever-changing labels created by retailers, and for some, it can be a difficult task, said Joshua Ordway, MD, of Franklin Family Practice, a Premier HealthNet practice.

“Each pharmacy has its own label design although the labels contain the same information – such as the patient’s name and their address, the medication, the dosage and how to take it,” Dr. Ordway said. “But all of those words and numbers are in different places so you really have to learn to read the label and to pay attention to where everything is, otherwise you could miss some dosing information that is really important.”

Properly reading a prescription label is so important that Dr. Ordway encourages patients to choose a pharmacy based on which label is easiest for them to understand. Choosing one pharmacy where you get prescriptions filled can also cut down on confusion and it reduces the risk of drug duplication.

One of the first things patients should do when they receive a prescription is to read the label and make sure it has their name and their physician’s name on it. Next, it is important to check the name of the drug and its dosage. Most pharmacies provide literature describing what the medication should look like. For instance, it might be a small white pill with letters engraved on it. This will help ensure that the right medication has been given. It can also help eliminate confusion that arises when a prescription drug has been switched from a brand name to a generic brand.

“A generic medication can look different when manufactured by two different companies,” Dr. Ordway said. “Let’s take a water pill, for instance. It can be a small pink pill, it can be a small white pill or it can be a bigger pill. Some may have lines through them for halving and some may not.”

Last, be sure to check the directions. Some medications can come with specifications on how or when to take them such as “take by mouth twice daily” or “take as needed.” A 2007 study in the Patient Education and Counseling Journal found that one-third of patients didn’t realize that “two tablets twice daily” meant taking four pills in a 24-hour period. Patients also can misuse medications that are prescribed on an “as needed” basis, Dr. Ordway said.

“At least once a week I have someone who I discover is not taking their medication correctly,” he added. “I see this a lot with inhalers. People with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) typically have two inhalers – one for every day use and another that is to be used only when needed. Often times, I find they are using their one prescribed only for as needed situations on a daily basis because they experience rapid relief of their symptoms.”

Not understanding how to use a medication or how to time its consumption can cause an adverse drug event (ADE). ADEs cause over 700,000 emergency department visits each year. Nearly 120,000 patients each year need to be hospitalized for further treatment after emergency visits for ADEs. Dr. Ordway urges patients to take all their medication bottles with them to each doctor’s visit and to discuss any questions they might have about their prescriptions.

“It is always a good idea to double check with your physician on how they want you to take your medicine,” Dr. Ordway said. “Make sure you get the information you need because it is your health. You and your doctor both want the best outcome for you.”

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