Medical Minute: Doctor-patient communication encourages safe Rx use

October 10, 2012

In recognition of the National Council on Patient Information and Education's 27th Annual National Talk About Prescriptions Month, John Messmer, a family medicine physician at Penn State Hershey Medical Group–Palmyra, talks about communication as the key to promoting safe prescription use.

Messmer emphasizes the importance of keeping your primary care physician (PCP) informed of all medications, both prescription and over the counter (OTC), including vitamins and supplements.

"Four out of five people are on some medication, supplements or prescriptions meds," Messmer said. "Many times people see other physicians who will add or adjust medications. Or we'll send you to a doctor or specialist, who adds, removes or changes a medication."

Traditionally those additions or changes were noted in a patient's chart kept in the physician's office and the information was not necessarily shared with other providers. It was up to the patient to alert his PCP. Advances in technology now allow the sharing of patient records electronically, however Messmer says it is still best to be proactive and inform your PCP rather than to rely on the specialist or other professional to report changes.

Your doctor should also be asking about your medications. Your nurse may ask at the start of your office visit. Your physician should look at your chart at each visit to verify medications you are taking and any previous conditions you have had. This prevents unsafe drug interactions or unwanted side effects when you are prescribed any new medications.

Messmer also encourages patients to keep a complete, current list of medications they are taking with them at all times. Share the information with a family member as well, especially for elderly patients. The list should include the names of all OTC and prescription medication you are taking and notations of the reason you take them. When that list changes, notify your PCP. Messmer says to treat your PCP's records like a central processing area where your complete history is stored.

Messmer encourages people to be sure to share knowledge of all the medications they take. Some patients feel reluctant or embarrassed to admit they are taking medications for conditions such as anxiety and depression or are unwilling to admit they saw another physician.

It’s important for patients to stay informed about their medication regimen, Messmer says. Your doctor should explain what to do about any anticipated side effects. You should know how severe a reaction needs to be before there is cause for worry, when to stop taking the drug and when to call your doctor. You should also know when to continue a drug because side effects are temporary as your body adjusts to the medication.

With each prescription drug, a patient should receive a printout with side effects and drug interaction warnings. Messmer suggests using reliable sources like WebMD, where medication information is provided by medical personnel. Patients can click on the Drugs & Supplements tab to research further. He cautions that if you see something that concerns you or you are unsure about, call your doctor's office because many of the side effects listed are rare and the benefits of medications usually outweigh risks.

Messmer also reminds people to know what is in any supplement they are taking.

"Manufacturers often give it a fancy name like 'heart support' and it contains a combination of things," he said. "Supplements, OTC medication and anything you eat have the potential to interact."

He suggests you know the ingredients or bring the bottle or label with you when visiting your doctor. This is especially important, as manufacturers of these supplements are not required to register their products with the FDA or get FDA approval before making or selling dietary supplements.

Take medications as directed by your physician and until gone, Messmer says. This is especially important for medications for temporary ailments, like antibiotics.

"Sometimes people will say 'I don't have to take this, I feel fine,'" Messmer said, but do not discontinue use or adjust the dosage without consulting your doctor — especially with a permanent or chronic issue like high blood pressure.

For more information, visit and check out the TAP Month Tool Bag that lists other available resources including smart phone apps to track medications. A drug interactions tool is also available in the Health Information Library at

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature brought to you by Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of Penn State Hershey faculty physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

Up next week: How parents and other caregivers can help children enjoy a fun and safe Halloween.

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Last Updated November 08, 2012