Managing Prescriptions for Better Health

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On average, seniors take between 14-18 prescriptions a year, most of them for chronic conditions. As a result, prescription management becomes a large part of our personal health management as we age. It is important to understand your medications and to be prepared if problems arise. Below are some suggestions and questions to ask your doctor to help better manage your prescriptions.

Make sure you provide a current and complete list of all your medications each time you visit your doctor, including over the counter drugs, vitamins and any herbal supplements you take regularly. Have this written list with you at all times, as well as on your refrigerator for any emergency situation. Emergency personnel can tell a lot about your medical condition just by having access to your current prescription list.

If possible, use the same pharmacy to fill all of your prescriptions. This will provide another check to make sure that you don’t experience any negative drug interactions that may have been missed at the doctor’s office. Most pharmacies will also print you a full list of your medications to help you keep track. Pharmacists are extremely knowledgeable, and can be an excellent resource to answer questions. 

Use a pill dispensary if you are taking a complicated regimen of medications. These range from simple daily pill boxes to very sophisticated electronic devises. You should count out your medications into the dispensary when you are relaxed and undistracted. If it is too confusing, work with a family member or visiting nurse.

Finally, anytime you are prescribed a new medication, have a conversation with your doctor about what it is, how it works and why you are taking it. Below is a list of common questions that you should have answers to for any new prescription before you leave the doctor’s office.

  • What is the name of the medicine, and why am I taking it? This seems obvious enough, but there are trade names, brand names, generic names – all for the same chemical compound. Doctors may write the prescription in a way that does not match the words used during the visit or what ends up on the pill bottle.
  • How does it treat my condition? – It is important that you have a basic understanding of how the medication affects your body. This understanding helps provide context and will make you more aware and understanding of any potential side effects.
  • How many times a day should I take it? At what times? With food or without? – The basic logistics of taking many pills can be overwhelming, but it is important that you take medications correctly so they can be effective and to reduce the risk of side effects. Make sure you understand the consequences of not taking your medicine as directed.
  • How should I store the medication? Does it need to be refrigerated? I recently had a client lose an entire bottle of an expensive prescription because the pills just turned to a powdery mess. Turns out it didn’t like humidity and should have been refrigerated during a stretch of sticky summer weather. Some medications will lose their effectiveness if stored improperly.
  • Is there anything I should or should not eat or drink when taking this medicine? What about alcohol? – Many medicines can become less effective or can trigger side effects if you eat certain foods while taking them. Some can irritate an already fragile digestive balance. Alcohol interaction can also be troublesome.
  • How will I know if this medicine is working? – This may seem obvious, but with conditions such as blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and other slowly developing diseases, it may not be obvious at all that the medication is working. You may need regular tests and more monitoring for a period of time or permanently to know that the medication is being effective.
  • How long will it take to work? – Sometimes you will see immediate results, sometimes it can take weeks for a medication to build up in your system to a point of effectiveness. Understanding how long medications need to become effective will help you understand if it is working as intended.
  • What should I do if I forget to take my medicine?– It happens…Sometimes just skipping and waiting until the next dose is fine, sometimes you will need to take it as soon as you realize you have forgotten it and adjust the schedule – whatever is needed, know what to do before it happens. NEVER simply double the dose the following time to make up for the missed one unless specifically directed to do so by your doctor. If you don’t know what to do, call your doctor or ask your pharmacist before taking action.
  • What side effects can I expect and what should I do if I have a problem?– It’s important to know what to watch out for, when you should call the doctor, and early symptoms for any side effect that is potentially life threatening. Sometimes just knowing what you are experiencing is a common side effect from a prescription medication will make the symptom much less frightening and more manageable.
  • When should I stop taking the medicine? –While the general rule of thumb is to take all prescribed medications until they are finished, for “as needed” and some other types of medicines this simple question is not as clear cut. Make sure you understand the duration of the treatment, what will trigger re-fills, and any circumstances under which you should stop taking the medication.
  • Can the pharmacist substitute a less expensive, generic form of the medicine?– Make sure you understand if the doctor wants to allow substitutions. Most of the time generic substitutions are absolutely fine, but under some conditions, the doctor may want to only to use a specific brand or form of a drug.

Managing prescriptions can be complicated, confusing and downright frustrating. However, it is critically important to manage our prescriptions well. It all starts with a solid understanding about your medications.

Sources: US Food & Drug Administration, Society of Certified Senior Advisors, American Association of Retired People (AARP)

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