Almost half of all Americans take at least one prescription medication, and half of older people take three or more. Not taking medications as prescribed can result in worsening of the condition being treated, adverse drug events, overdose, and unnecessary hospitalizations. Even so, many people do not take their medications as prescribed.

A new study in the September 25, 2006 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine found that, on average, doctors only conveyed 62% of the necessary information when prescribing new medications, which may partly account for why their patients are not using medications properly.

About the Study

Researchers from the University of California audiotaped 185 patient visits with 44 physicians, during which 244 new medications were prescribed. The researchers scored the physicians on how well they communicated necessary information about the medications, which included the following:

  • The medication's name
  • Reason for taking the medication
  • How long it should be taken
  • Possible adverse effects
  • Dosage and frequency or timing instructions

During the patient visits, the physicians named the medication 74% of the time, stated the reason for taking it 87% of the time, relayed how long it should be taken 34% of the time, talked about adverse effects 35% of the time, discussed the dose 55% of the time, and explained the frequency or timing of intake 58% of the time. On average, the physicians communicated only 62% of the necessary information during the visit.

This study may have actually overestimated the quality of communication since the physicians were aware the visits were being audiotaped, and thus may have been more vigilant than usual in their patient counseling.

How Does This Affect You?

These findings suggest that physicians often neglect to communicate important information about the medications they are prescribing. Although more research is needed to determine the extent to which this influences patients’ adherence, it is possible that poor physician communication may contribute to patient misunderstanding regarding the importance and proper use of new medications.

To make sure you have a clear understanding of your new medication, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality recommends that you ask your doctor the following questions about your new prescriptions:

  • What is the name of the medication?
  • Is it trade or generic?
  • What is its purpose?
  • How and when should I take it?
  • How long will I need to take it?
  • What are the possible adverse effects associated with the medication?
  • What should I do if I experience an adverse event?
  • When should I expect the medication to work?
  • How can I tell if it is working?
  • Should I avoid food, other medications, or dietary or herbal supplements when I am taking this medication?