Using medicines wisely

Working with your healthcare team to understand your medicines

Who wants to take pills and potions every day? No one! But many of us have to take medicines to stay well, even to stay alive.

We share how to get the best medicines information from your health professionals to stay safe and well. Knowing exactly what to ask them is an important first step!

Get to know your medicines

Knowing about your medicines can help you get the most benefit and avoid problems with them.

Ask your doctor or pharmacist questions like: why are you taking these medicines and why might they have changed; when and how do you take them – are there any special instructions; how long do you need to take it; how do you tell if it’s working; will you need any tests during treatment and why; what happens if you forget to take a dose and what to do if you take too much.

Serious health problems or accidents can occur when some medications, eg, warfarin, methotrexate, insulin and morphine, are not used as directed. Learn how to take them with extra care.

Be prepared for side effects

All medicines, including over-the-counter medicines, herbal remedies, vitamins and supplements can have side effects.

Not all people experience side effects, some are more common than others, and not all side effects can be prevented. But recognising them, and knowing what to do if you have them, can prevent harm.

Side effects are more likely to occur when starting a new medicine – within hours or days – as your body gets used to the medicine. But some may be delayed, starting after taking the medicine for some time.

When you start a new medicine, ask about what side effects to watch for, anything you can do to ease them and any serious effects that require immediate medical attention.

On rare occasions drug reactions can be serious or life-threatening; ask what to look out for and when to seek immediate help.

Get your medicines reviewed annually

Sometimes medicines you are taking may no longer be needed.

It’s a good idea to have all your medicines checked once a year by your pharmacist or doctor; discuss what you gained from taking your medicine, or what it is about your medicine that troubles you most. That way you can find out if a medicine or another treatment can help. 

Keep an updated list of your medicines and supplements

Problems with medicines, like interactions, can happen at any time, but there are some situations when they are more likely to happen, eg, a stay in hospital, starting a new medicine or herbal remedy, or having your dose changed by a different doctor.

One of the best ways to prevent problems with medicines is to keep an updated list, called a “yellow card”, of all the medicines, supplements, drops and vitamins you are taking. Remember to include any drug allergies. Show your card to everyone involved in your health care to avoid harmful interactions.

Make wise lifestyle choices

Be proactive and talk to your doctor about your medicine options. For example, some people can avoid medication and lower their blood pressure sufficiently with increased exercise and healthy eating. Losing weight or being physically active can also prevent or delay the onset of diabetes and reduce pain in osteoarthritis

Some questions to ask your doctor are: Is what I am taking the best for me? Are there any other medicines or treatment choices I could try? Should I consider counselling, or lifestyle changes like changes to activity levels, sleep, weight or diet? Of course, don’t just stop your medicines without discussing with your doctor or pharmacist first.

So, talk with your healthcare team about what you can do to refine your medications and optimise your health and wellbeing. 

Learn more

Be medicine-smart: your guide to using medicines safely Health Navigator 
Patient safety week 2017 Health Quality and Safety Commission, NZ

Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team; Images from for patient safety week.