Dr Michelle O'Driscoll: How to manage if you are on multiple medications

Playing an active role in our own treatment is much more beneficial in the long run, so says Dr Michelle O'Driscoll in her weekly column
Dr Michelle O'Driscoll: How to manage if you are on multiple medications

"Playing an active role in our own treatment is much more beneficial in the long run, because uncertainty and lack of knowledge are key contributors to medication errors," so says Dr Michelle O'Driscoll. Picture: stock

FOR many of us, what begins as a single daily medication eventually becomes a list of several as we age or as diseases progress.

It’s easy to become disengaged from or intimidated by this list of medications, and to become unsure as to why we’re actually taking each of them.

But playing an active role in our own treatment is much more beneficial in the long run, because uncertainty and lack of knowledge are key contributors to medication errors.

Almost 10% of emergency department admissions are due to adverse drug events. Patients and carers who are empowered with the required knowledge of their medications are less likely to experience such errors, eg. the wrong tablets, wrong dose, or incorrect usage. Particularly when transferring from hospital to GP care, or when going from the doctor to your pharmacy, this knowledge is invaluable. It ensures that all information is accurate, and that nothing gets left out or duplicated.

Last year the HSE launched an initiative to promote patient knowledge of their medications which was developed in line with the World Health Organisation’s Global Patient Safety Campaign. The programme is conveniently summarised using three words: Know, Check, Ask – simple calls to action for patients who take medications for any variety of reasons. See if they are actions that you yourself can take in relation to your medications.

Know – Be familiar with your medicines as much as is possible. This includes knowing what medicines you’re taking and why you’re taking them.

Granted, drug names can seem like a foreign language and lead to confusion, but being proactive and ensuring that you always have a written summary of this information is extremely helpful and will stand you in good stead if you should ever need the information in an emergency.

If your list is extensive, it can be hard to know where to start, but that is what your healthcare professionals are there for, so don’t hesitate to enlist their help in compiling this information with you.

How you put the information together does not matter, once it’s accurate and up to date. Make sure that you include all medications prescribed and those that you may take over the counter. Also include medications that are not necessarily tablets eg patches, inhalers, injections.

Some people make a good old-fashioned handwritten list; include on it the drug name, the strength of the drug, how many/how often to take it, and the reason for taking it. You can keep this list in your wallet, or take a picture of it to keep on your phone. Other people like to include pictures of the tablet boxes, or to stick the labels from the boxes onto a sheet to visually show all the essential information.

Alternatively you can download the “My Medicines List” document from www.safermeds.ie to use as a template. Sharing this information with a family member or carer is also very helpful.

Check - Check you are using the medication correctly. This will require a conversation with your pharmacist or doctor. Schedule this in advance, and use it to clarify things like whether you should be taking particular tablets in the morning or at night, after food or on an empty stomach, demonstrating and tweaking how you’re using your inhaler, or getting guidance on appropriate medication storage.

If you’re leaving the hospital, check what medications you should be stopping and what new ones you’ve been started on. Regularly check that your list corresponds to the one that your healthcare providers are working from, and reconcile any discrepancies.

Ask – Ask for advice or information if unsure. Patients are often slow to “take up too much time” or are afraid to “ask stupid questions,” but these conversations are always time well spent. You can be sure that you aren’t the first person to ask the question, and you certainly won’t be the last.

And isn’t it better to be sure that you’re getting the very best out of your treatment, optimising your health outcomes, and preventing any unwanted errors? It’s challenging enough that you have a list of medications to adhere to; give yourself a fighting chance of treatment being effective by being informed about the best and safest way to use them.

Following these three steps may seem like a huge undertaking, especially if you’re starting from scratch in terms of knowledge of your medications (which so many people are!)

But it really is as easy as picking up the phone to your pharmacist or doctor and scheduling that conversation. It’s worth the effort to know that you’re taking the right medications, at the right time, at the right dose and in the right way.

Playing an active role in our own treatment is much more beneficial in the long run, because uncertainty and lack of knowledge are key contributors to medication errors.

Dr Michelle O’Driscoll is a pharmacist, researcher and founder of InTuition, a health and wellness education company. Her research lies in the area of mental health education, and through her company InTuition she delivers health promotion workshops to corporate and academic organisations nationally

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