Navigating the Health Care System

Advice Columns from Dr. Carolyn Clancy

Former AHRQ Director Carolyn Clancy, M.D., prepared brief, easy-to-understand advice columns for consumers to help navigate the health care system. They address important issues such as how to recognize high-quality health care, how to be an informed health care consumer, and how to choose a hospital, doctor, and health plan.

If your doctor wrote you a prescription for the pain reliever Darvon, would you know if you received Diovan, a medicine for high blood pressure, by mistake? Unless you're a health professional or you carefully read both the doctor's prescription and your medicine bottle at the drug store, chances are you would not know you got the wrong medicine.

Many medicines have names that look or sound alike. To limit the risk of confusing two drugs, hospitals and health care organizations have developed lists so they can identify these drugs and make sure you get the right one. Companies that make drugs are also working to reduce the number of medicines with similar-sounding names.

But many medication errors are found by patients. As an involved health consumer, you can take steps to make sure you get the right medicine and understand how to use it. To help you, my agency, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, has developed a checklist for taking medication safely. We recommend that you:

  • Bring a list or a bag with all your medicines when you go to the doctor's office, pharmacy, or hospital. Make sure you include all prescription and over-the-counter medicines as well as vitamins and supplements. If your doctor prescribes a new medicine, ask if it is safe to take it with your other medicines.
  • Ask questions about your medicines. Choose a pharmacist and doctor you feel comfortable with. Ask them to use plain language when they answer your questions. If you think you'll need help, have a friend or relative come with you to ask questions and remind you of the answers.
  • Make sure your medicine is what your doctor ordered. Because many drugs have names that sound or look alike, your doctor and pharmacist should take steps to prevent mix-ups. But it's always wise to double-check. Ask your pharmacist if you think the medicine you received is different than what your doctor told you or wrote on the order. If you are getting a refill, make sure the medicine looks the same as the kind you got before.
  • Ask how to use the medicine correctly. Read the directions on the label, and ask your pharmacist or doctor to explain anything you don't understand. Find out if there are medicines, foods, or activities (like driving or using alcohol or tobacco) you should avoid when taking the medicine. Ask if you need to have a test to check if the medicine is working or is causing a side effect.
  • Ask about possible side effects. "Side effects" are reactions, like getting an upset stomach after taking an antibiotic, that aren't part of the intended effect of the medicine. Side effects can occur with many medicines. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if your medicine can cause side effects, what types of side effects you should watch for, and whether they are likely to be serious. Some side effects, like dizziness, may go away after you have been taking a medicine for a while. Call your doctor if you have a side effect that is serious or does not get better. Your doctor may need to change your medicine or adjust the dose.

Whether you have a brief illness or an ongoing medical condition, medicines are meant to help you. You can get the best results from medicines when you take the right ones and take them safely.

I'm Dr. Carolyn Clancy, and that's my advice on how to navigate the health care system.

More Information

AHRQ Podcast
Ways to Play it Safe with Prescription Medications (Transcript)

Institute for Safe Medication Practices
List of Confused Drug Names
http://www.ismp.org/Tools/confuseddrugnames.pdf

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
Check Your Medicines: Tips for Taking Medicines Safety
http://www.ahrq.gov/patients-consumers/diagnosis-treatment/treatments/checkmeds.html

Page last reviewed January 2008
Internet Citation: Tips for Taking Medicines Safely. January 2008. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. http://www.ahrq.gov/news/columns/navigating-the-health-care-system/010208.html