And have your doctor write the name of the drug down for you.
Yes. And not only write it down, but write it down legibly. It's not going to help too much if it's an unreadable scrawl. Any health worker who prescribes a drug should not let the client go out of the of office without having in his or her possession the name of the drug, typed or neatly printed. Ideally, they should also be provided with a sheet of written information about that drug.
If the drug is prescribed by brand name, your doctor should also write down the generic name of the drug. And if it's a combination product, he or she should write down the name of each ingredient.
What else should people know besides the name of the drug?
Find out precisely how to take it. "Before meals." is not specific enough. You need to know exactly how long before meals. Find out the reasons behind these instructions so that they make sense to you.
How about side effects?
That's the next thing. Be sure to find out about all the common side effects, whether they're serious or not. Also be sure to find out about any dangerous side effects—no matter how infrequent.
I'm not going to be worried about a very minor side effect which occurs in one out of two thousand people. But if 20 percent of the people taking the drug feel drowsy? I want to know.
I'm also going to want complete information on very rare side effects, if they're serious ones, even if they only occur in one out of ten thousand people. I'd want to know what the early warning signs are for the serious side effects.
I guess the other thing would be possible drug interactions.
Yes, and this is more of a problem than ever because so many people are taking more than one drug— sometimes prescribed by different doctors. I'd want to receive a list of all the drugs and foods that might interact with the drug I was taking.
I think it's vital for the prescriber to give not only verbal information but written material to take home. There's a wonderful book available for exactly this purpose. It's called Drug Information for Patients, by H. Winter Griffith. It's published in a looseleaf binder with removable pages so that a health worker can remove the appropriate pages, copy them on the office copying machine, and give the client a copy. It gives information on taking the drug, possible side effects, how the drug may interact with your activities of daily living, how to store the drug, refills, and dealing with overdoses.
Are there any completely safe drugs?
No. There are potential problems with every drug. Both doctors and their clients are at risk of being lulled into a familiarity-breeds-contempt kind of attitude. If your doctor has prescribed a drug a number of times and no one has ever complained of any side effects, he may begin to assume it's completely safe, and may no longer feel it necessary to warn people about side effects. But every person responds differently and you may have a side effect even though none of your doctor's previous patients did.
Incidentally, this is an excellent reason for letting your doctor know about minor side effects of a drug you're taking—if you don't tell him, he might not think to warn the next person for whom he prescribes that drug.
What are the important differences between prescription and nonprescription drugs?
It's a somewhat artificial distinction. There are a number of drugs, presently available only by prescription, that will soon be available over the counter, such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine hydrochloride), an antihistamine. The more potent or potentially dangerous the drug, the more likely it is to be available by prescription only.