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Prescription label confusion

Patients should pay more attention, doctors say.Get prepped for new changes.


Just how confident are you in your ability to read prescription labels correctly?

According to a report by the Institute of Medicine, with tens of millions of people using prescription and over-the-counter medications, nearly 1.5 million preventable medication errors occur each year, roughly of third of which are often due to a patient’s misunderstanding of prescription labels, improper use of medications and a lack of understanding of drug interactions.

In an effort to reduce this occurrence, the Food and Drug Administration announced new regulations just this past spring to ensure that all over-the-counter drug labels look similar and provide the same information to consumers. The new labeling is expected to hits shelves very soon, but in the meantime, Joshua Ordway, MD, of Franklin Family Practice, a Premier HealthNet practice, says that patients will have to continue to navigate through the world of ever-changing prescription labels created by retailers and for some, it can be quite a daunting task.

“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,” said Dr. Ordway. “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.”

In fact, Dr. Ordway believes that properly reading a prescription label is so important that he encourages patients to choose a pharmacy based on which label is easiest for them to understand. In addition, choosing one pharmacy where you get prescriptions filled can cut down on confusion and reduce the risk of drug duplication.

Dr. Ordway advises that one of the first things patients should do when they receive a prescription is to check to make sure that their name and their physician’s name appears on the label. Next, he says to check the name of the drug and the dosage. Most pharmacies will provide literature that describes what the medication should look like. For example, it might be a white pill with letters engraved on it. This will not only help to ensure that the patient is receiving the correct medication, but it will also help to eliminate confusion that often arises when a brand name drug is substituted with a generic brand.

“A generic medication can look different when manufactured by two different companies,” said Dr. Ordway. “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.”

Finally, Dr. Ordway says to read the directions very carefully as some medications can come with specifications on how or when to take them such as “take by mouth twice daily” or “take as needed.” In a 2007 study published in the Patient Education and Counseling Journal it was revealed that one-third of patients didn’t realize that “two tablets twice daily” meant taking four pills in a 24-hour period. Dr. Ordway said that patients sometimes also misuse medications that are prescribed on an “as needed” basis.

“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). In fact, ADEs cause over 700,000 emergency department visits each year with nearly 120,000 patients needing to be hospitalized for further treatment after their emergency visit. Therefore, 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,” said Dr. Ordway. “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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