Know which medicines you take and why you take them


Doctor: What medicines do you take at home?

Patient: Something for the diabetes.

Doctor: Do you know the name of it?

Patient: “Starts with an M.  Or a P.  Honey, what’s the name of that pill?

Wife: Well dear, I don’t know but it’s a little blue one.  You know doc, the little blue one?

Nothing will drive your health care provider more crazy than conversations like this.  Not only is it annoying, but not knowing what medications you take is dangerous as well.  Say you are on warfarin (Coumadin) for some reason, maybe atrial fibrillation.  Then you go to a urologist, who decides you have a urinary tract infection and puts you on Bactrim.  A week later you fall and hit your head, start bleeding inside your head and end up in a coma.  Did you know that Bactrim will make Coumadin more effective?  Did you know that means you will be more likely to bleed if you take the two at once?  You don’t need to know this, but your doctors do.

If you are going to your primary doctor, even if you’ve been going to them for a long time, either bring an accurate list or empty your medicine cabinet into a plastic bag and bring it along.  When I was a medicine resident I used to go to the chart of each of my patients every day and check what medications they were receiving, even if I had ordered them myself!  Mistakes can be made, prescriptions either not filled correctly or not taken correctly.

Read each label on the bottles you’ve brought along with your doctor.  Check that the dose, frequency, and number is correct.  Check for drugs that are due for re-fill.  Make sure you or your surrogate knows what each drug does and any major or common side effects each one has.  Ask if the number of pills you are taking can be reduced or the schedule simplified.  Ask what to do if you forget to take one, which you will because everyone does.  Find a good website that you can look your medications up on, like

If you are admitted to a hospital or go for a day-surgery procedure, the nurses will go over each medication with your and fill out a medication reconciliation form.  This is one of a number of relatively recent requirements listed in the National Patient Safety Goals developed by the Joint Commission for hospital safety (more on this in another post).  The whole point of this form is to make sure that everyone has the same, hopefully accurate, information.  It can only be accurate if you make it so.  Know what you take and why.  Your health and your doctor will thank you.

Shirie Leng is an anesthesiologist who blogs at medicine for real.

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