Your top three: Prescription precautions

By Jonathan White, Pharm.D., BCPS, clinical pharmacy specialist, primary care, Providence Medical Group

Medications can help manage a lot of health problems, but they can cause problems of their own when they get mixed up, taken incorrectly or combined with certain supplements, foods or other medicines. Protect yourself from potentially dangerous medication mix-ups by taking these three prescription precautions:

1. Keep an up-to-date medication list.

Make a list of every medicine you take, keep it current, and give your doctor's office and pharmacy an updated copy at every visit. If you can, also keep a copy with you in your purse or wallet, in case of an emergency.

In addition to prescription drugs, your list should include all herbal supplements, vitamins and over-the-counter remedies you are currently taking. Your doctor and pharmacist need to know if you are taking any of these products, because many of them can interact dangerously with prescription drugs. The herb St. John's wort, for example, has numerous interactions with a variety of medications. These interactions either can lead to severe side effects or can interfere with the medication's effectiveness. Even a supplement as common as calcium can interfere with the absorption of certain medicines.

With a complete and up-to-date list, your physician and pharmacist can check extensive databases to protect you from potentially dangerous interactions every time they recommend or fill a new prescription – but they can't check everything if they're not aware of everything you are taking.

2. Stick with one pharmacy.

"Pharmacy hopping" has become a common practice as people transfer prescriptions from their primary pharmacy to grocery stores, pharmacy chains, big-box warehouse stores and the many other outlets now competing for this business. While swapping pharmacies may earn you fuel points or other bonuses, the long-run costs can be high in terms of your health and safety. That's because each time you transfer a prescription to a new pharmacy, you create a gap in your medication record at your primary pharmacy. Keeping an up-to-date medication list, as suggested, can help – but the more pharmacies you use, the more you increase the chances of information gaps that could put your health at risk.

When you establish a relationship with a pharmacy, the pharmacist and staff gather information not only about your current medications and supplements, but also about your health history and medication allergies. At each visit, they check and update this information to confirm that your new prescriptions have been prescribed appropriately (this is why prescriptions sometimes take longer to fill than you might expect – your pharmacist checks every detail, including dosage, instructions and potential interactions, to protect your safety). The more complete your profile, the better equipped the pharmacist is to detect any reasons why a medication might not be appropriate for you, and to offer other options that might be safer or more suitable. Using one pharmacy consistently helps you build the most complete profile. And on a more personal level, it allows you and your pharmacist to get to know each other better.

3. Understand your meds, and take them only as directed.

Every time you begin a new prescription, make sure you know the answers to these questions:

  • What is it for? What condition is the drug treating, and what results should you expect?

  • How should you take it? With or without food? With a full glass of water, or just a sip? Can the pills be crushed or cut into smaller pieces? Are there certain foods or beverages that should be avoided while taking it?

  • How long should you take it? Until you feel better? Until the prescription is gone? Or for the rest of your life?

  • What are the potential side effects? Which side effects should you report to your doctor immediately? Which ones are expected, but not dangerous? Which side effects might be avoided by switching to a different medicine?

If you don't know the answers to these questions, ask your doctor or pharmacist – that's what we're here for. Without this information, people often make mistakes, such as:

  • Taking medication improperly and reducing its effectiveness

  • Discontinuing a medication before it has had a chance to take effect, or because the benefits it is providing are not outwardly noticeable

  • Continuing to take medication that is not working or is no longer needed

  • Suffering unnecessarily from side effects that could be avoided by switching medication

If there is ever anything you don't understand about your medication, your pharmacist will be happy to explain it. Pharmacists are among the most accessible health care professionals on your team, readily available to answer questions and provide information to keep you healthy and safe. Get to know us.

More Resources

Providence has four retail pharmacies in the Portland metropolitan area. On the Providence Portland Medical Center campus, in the Providence St. Vincent Medical Office building, at Providence Bridgeport Health Center and now at Providence Tanasbourne Health Center.