Managing Medications: Know Your Meds

            Let’s talk about the bane of existence for many seniors: medications. About 40% of elders take 5 or more prescription meds, making pill management seem like a full-time job.  In the next few blogs, I’ll tell you some easy ways to manage your meds more efficiently and safely. The first step is to get to know your meds so that you and your doctor can always make informed decisions about them.  An easy way to do this is to create a tool that identifies each of your medications: the “Med List”.  Most health authorities, including the American Medical Association, recommend that patients create and carry a personal medication list to streamline their med management and avoid medication errors.

            Creating a Med List is really quite simple. Gather all of your medication containers in one place.  Take out a large sheet of paper, and write today’s date and your name at the top. Then, make a row for each medication and fill in this information:

  1. the name of the drug,
  2. the dosage,
  3. the reason for the drug, and
  4. the approximate time(s) the med is supposed to be taken.

To the right of each drug, write in any special instructions, like “take after a meal”.  If you take vitamins or other supplements, include them on your list, because supplements can affect the way medications work.  Also include any over-the-counter drugs like aspirin or cough syrup.  It’s important to know your drug allergies, so write these at the top of the page. (If you don’t know whether you have any drug allergies, put a question mark to remind you to ask the doctor.)

            You can enlist a family member, your pharmacist, or your doctor’s office to help with the list, if you have trouble locating the information. When the list is complete, make a few copies of it and carry one in your wallet or purse.  Always take your current Med List to doctors’ appointments, and update it every time your drugs change.

            Experts recommend that seniors have an annual “medication review” with their primary doctor, so the doctor can quickly see all current medications and spot any potential problems.  Often, a primary doctor is not informed of drugs that other specialists prescribe for his patients.  As a result, the patients can end up with too much medication or with pills that conflict.  This is especially a risk for elderly patients, who tend to take several medications and see several medical specialists.  The crossed wires can be a cause of severe medical problems, including memory loss and medication-induced dementia.

            Healthcare experts recommend that you give a copy of your Med List to any family member involved in your medical decisions.  If you have an emergency situation, you will want the ambulance or hospital staff to know which medications you take so that they can avoid giving you a conflicting drug.  Medication errors, where patients are given the wrong medications or the wrong dosage of medication, sicken, injure or kill more than 1.5 million Americans every year. Avoiding medication errors in hospitals requires you, or your family, to be vigilant about the meds you are given, a task that is made much easier with an accurate Med List as a reference.

            When you refill your prescriptions, look at your med list to be sure you got the right pills.  Miscommunication between the doctor’s office and the drugstore, or pharmacy errors in filling the prescriptions, can cause you to end up with the wrong medications.  It can even be helpful to make a note on your Med List of the appearance of each drug (“the small round white one”). Taking a few minutes each month to examine your pills can help you prevent dangerous medication errors.

            Next blog, I’ll share with you some expert advice for ways to remember to take your meds on time.