Editor’s Note: This piece was submitted by a contributing writer and does not represent the views of CURE Media Group. Being sick or caring for a loved one who is, is hard work that is also overwhelming and emotionally depleting. I speak from experience. My world crumbled when my 17-year-old son, Zachary, was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor and given just four to six weeks to live. We were lucky that Zach survived for another 27 months, but he still died far too young at 19 from respiratory failure.
Like anyone, we were not prepared for Zach’s diagnosis. It hit us like a ton of bricks. The truth is, no one gets the opportunity to “get ready.” There really is no way to prepare. As Zach’s disease progressed, the demands on us grew, including an increased number of prescribed and over-the-counter medications that needed to be administered. By the end of his life, he was taking more than 20 medications, including two injections. My experience with Zach made it easy for me to understand why many Americans don’t take their medications as prescribed. However, it’s something we must work to fix, as medication non-compliance – such as skipping a dose or taking the wrong dosage – leads to thousands of adverse health events, or deaths, every month in the U.S.
Medication management seemed like it was going to be a lot easier than it actually was. But each medicine came with its own set of rules, including how many times a day, with or without food, and even how many hours it can be taken before or after meals. It was a puzzle to be solved – when can all these medications be given as specified, yet still allow time to eat? And the injections were even more complicated! One shot had to be given in rotation of the four quadrants on Zach’s abdomen, the other injection rotated between thighs and abdomen. We clearly needed a system. Engineers by profession, my husband and I developed a detailed chart to keep track of all of his medications, including the injection sequences, to help us administer everything correctly. Through trial and error, we learned a lot, and I hope our knowledge will help others be more organized and avoid some of the mistakes we made.
The following five easy, yet important steps will help you make sure you’re taking, or administering, medications properly:
Understand each medication. When being prescribed a new medication, make sure you understand why, how and when to take each medication. Find out how you will know if the medication is working, what side effects to look out for, and what to do if you miss a dose. If you have trouble swallowing pills, ask if the pills can be crushed, if capsules can be opened or if pills can be cut in half.
Get the right medication. Many physicians use computer-generated prescriptions which reduce the risk of errors, but mistakes are still possible. Handwritten prescriptions leave even more room for errors, since handwriting may be difficult for you and the pharmacist to read. When you pick up a prescription at the pharmacy, take a moment to make sure you have the right medication in the correct form (pill, tablet, liquid, etc.) before you pay.
Double check the label with the instructions you received from the doctor. Studies have shown that up to 50 percent of patients misunderstand the dosage instructions on the prescription labels. Ask a pharmacist if you don’t feel confident.
Be especially vigilant when taking multiple medications. When patients are taking multiple medications (prescription, and/or over-the-counter drugs), there is a chance for an adverse drug reaction, which can range from minor to life threatening. Studies estimate that there are many preventable adverse drug events each year in the U.S. The risk increases if you are over 50 years old. Ask your doctor and/or pharmacist to identify possible reactions. Realize that many times one doctor does not know what another doctor is prescribing. Be sure to have a complete list of all medications available for every medical appointment.
Always take your medications exactly as prescribed. The proper use of all medications, both prescription medicines and over-the-counter ones, is crucial and often confusing. Medications must be taken precisely as prescribed in order to achieve the best medical results. To make it easier, use one or more pill organizer containers, available at a local pharmacy or online. Dedicate a specific time each week when you can quietly focus on dispensing medications into the pill organizer. Set up a reminder system and a method for accurately tracking that each medication has been taken. It’s a good idea to set an alarm for each time medication is needed. A cell phone allows you to easily set multiple alarms for each day. If you only take a few pills, you can buy pill containers with built-in alarms; however, that means you have to be within hearing distance of the pill containers at the right time.
For patients in hospitals, nursing homes and rehab facilities, check with the nurse before each medication is taken to make sure the medication and dosage is as prescribed by the doctor. Mistakes can happen. Research has estimated that on average there is at least one medication error per patient per day in hospitals and long-term care facilities. If you take medication that might not be available at the hospital, be sure to bring it with you when being admitted and give it to your nurse.
Knowing better is doing better. Medication adherence is a big issue, and for good reason. Medication management can make for challenging work. It can be hard even for the most organized people, never mind how hard it is when you’re dealing with the daily (often hourly!) stresses that come from managing a serious health issue. The good news is that with just a few extra steps and careful planning and organization, the risk to suffering from an adverse event can be greatly reduced.