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5 Simple Questions That May Save Your Life

Judie Rappaport
June 26, 2012



About five years ago a friend and colleague who is also the most knowledgeable Nurse & Geriatric Care Manager I’ve ever known, said, “Today’s drugs are so powerful that we’re often taking poison in non-lethal doses.” She was reminding me that while we often hear about the potent life-saving benefits of today’s super-drugs, we rarely acknowledge their potential for life altering damage, a.k.a. Adverse Drug Reactions (ADRs). After our discussion, I did some basic research which changed the way I look at medications for my family and clients, and for myself as well.

Here are the facts:

·         Adverse Drug Reactions (ADRs) are the 4th leading cause of death in the U.S. ahead of pulmonary disease, diabetes, AIDS, pneumonia, accidents & automobile deaths

·         No drug is without risk and all medicines have side effects. Some cause minor problems, others cause more than 100,000 fatalities and the hospitalization or serious injury of more than 2 million people in the United States each year.

·         The risks of serious side effects increase with age.  Decreased body size, altered body composition (more fat, less water), and decreased liver and kidney function cause many drugs to accumulate in older people’s bodies at dangerously higher levels and for longer times than in younger people.

·         Research tells us the risks increase exponentially starting with 4 prescriptions. Other research states that taking eight medications can raise your risk for serious Adverse Medication Reactions (AMR) to 100%.   

·         The majority of ADRs are preventable and may be due to inaccurate diagnosis of the patient’s condition, errors in drug selection or dosage, an undetected medical, genetic or allergic condition, and self medication or not following physicians’ instructions for taking the medication.

·         Deliberate, vigilant assessment of risk/benefit potential is critical to help avoid potential catastrophic ADRs.  Start with these five questions:

Asking Your Doctor 5 Simple Questions Can Help Minimize Your Risk for Adverse Drug Reactions:

Never accept a new prescription with answers to these five questions:

1.       What is this medication for?

Trust me; what you don’t know can’t can hurt you. (See bullets above.) Most drugs have more than one use.  To make sure this prescription fits your needs, ask why your doctor is prescribing it. This knowledge also provides the motivation to cope with side effects or pay the costs of the drug.

       2.   What if I don’t take this medication?

Up to 50% of patients do not follow doctors’ advice when it comes to medications; over 20% of first-time patient prescriptions are never filled. Here’s a good example of risk: Without high blood pressure medication, you raise your risk for heart attacks or kidney damage. Guessing is similar to Russian roulette—ask your doctor.

       3.  When will this medication start working?

A week? 30 days?  An hour? Depression medication may take weeks; pain medication may work in an hour or two. Knowing what to expect will help you keep taking your prescription and give you confidence to call your doctor for help if the medication doesn’t work for you.

       4. What are the potential adverse reactions from this medication?

Many medications can cause upset stomachs, headaches, dizziness, blurred vision, joint pain, and a host of other adverse reactions you don’t want. Knowing the potential hazards will alert you to call your doctor immediately. She/he may adjust the dose, the time you take the medication, or change the medication.  

       5. Can I take this medication with all my other medications?

This question is key to avoiding ADRs, however your doctor can’t answer this potentially   life-saving question unless you bring a list of all your current prescriptions with doses and times you take them. Many vitamins, aspirin/ibuprofen, herbal, and other non-prescription products interfere with prescription medications so be sure to add those to your list. 


The Bottom Line: Heed my colleague’s words:today’s drugs are so powerful that we’re often taking poison in non-lethal doses.” Medicine has advanced to a wonderfully healing and extremely complicated science. If you, your parent, or your clients can no longer stay acutely aware of and intimately involved with medication management, get help. Your life may depend on it.

Always remember, you have the knowledge, insight and power to make the right decisions for you and your family.


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