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USING INFORMATION THERAPY TO PUT PATIENTS FIRST
( By Dr Aniruddha Malpani )

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Chapter 10 - Contents Medicines The good, the bad and the ugly

Medicines - The good, the bad, and the ugly

Mrs Kapoor visited her GP for a 'nagging pain' in the stomach. Her GP prescribed her a course of antacids.

While Mrs Kapoor did get some temporary relief with the medicines, she decided to visit a specialist. The specialist gave her stronger tablets and she took them, while also continuing her GP's medication. This interaction of drugs exacerbated her problem, and she found herself back to square one. As an educated patient, Mrs Kapoor should have informed the specialist of the medicines that she had been taking. It might have resulted in a different prescription and a better outcome.

The right drug for the right patient in the right dose by the right route at the right time: this golden rule sums up the ideal prescription - and it seems like such a basic and simple rule. What's disturbing is how often this rule is broken today in daily medical practice. However, the good news is that Information Therapy prescriptions can ensure that we follow this simple rule. Medicines are powerful - and every drug canhave beneficial effects and undesirable effects. InformationTherapy ensures that the following questions have been clearly answered before taking any medicines.

What should you do if you are taking other prescribed or over-the-counter medicines? What are the short- and long- term risks associated with the medicine? Are there less riskyalternatives? What should you do if you inadvertently miss a dose? The list is not exhaustive. As a patient, it is your right to ask as many questions as you wish to clear any doubts.

Your first step should be to read what your doctor has written (no matter how illegible the writing may be), and to clearly understand what the 'hieroglyphics' mean. Don't leave with questions unanswered: ask your doctor or chemist for an explanation of any confusing terms on your prescription. A very useful reference book you should consider purchasing is the Indian Drug Review. This book is easily available at any medical bookshop and is an excellent compilation of details on all the prescription drugs available in India: for instance, their cost; dosage; therapeutic action; drug interactions; and side-effects. Though this book has been written for doctors, it is easy enough for any layperson to use. Not only will this book help in understanding the medicines you are taking, but it may also help you to save money, since you can select a less expensive brand of medicine, after discussing them atter with your doctor.

Your doctor can also help you save money by prescribing generic drugs. 'Generic' means that the drug is not protected by trademark registration; and the generic name of a drug is usually a shortened form of its chemical name, so that any manufacturer can use it when marketing a drug. Usually, a manufacturer uses a trade name (or brand name) as well as a generic name for a drug, and you should be able to identify the generic name and the trade name of every drug you are taking. Generic drugs are generally priced lower than their trademarked equivalents, largely because the former are not as widely advertised as the latter. Also, do keep in mind that for certain drugs, it is not advisable to 'shop around' for an alternative since differences can exist between the brands of certain drugs.

The amount of medicine you buy at a particular time depends on several factors, the most obvious one being how much money you have, or how much the insurance company will pay for each purchase. Medicines to treat heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes may be purchased in bulk because you will need to take such medicines for prolonged periods. The chances are that you will pay less per tablet or capsule by purchasing large quantities of drugs, and save quite a bit of money. Do ask the chemist for a bulk discount!

While medicines are useful in the treatment of certain illnesses, the overuse of drugs has taken its toll, not only in the form of unnecessary expenses but also in the form of sickness, and even death, as a result of an adverse reaction to the medicine. Patients still believe that there is a pill for every ill - and this desire for instant relief translates into billions of rupees for millions of pills, potions, ointments, and powders. The pharmaceutical industry in the second-most profitable in the world - right after illegal drug trafficking! Most people take one medicine at least weekly, and more than 25 percent of the world's population consumes drugs on a daily basis. Most patients are not happy unless doctors prescribe medicines - whether or not they really need them. Often, doctors too will contribute to this 'overmedication syndrome', and the huge advertising budgets as well as the largesse of pharmaceutical companies lure them to continue doing so on a regular basis.

You must, however, understand that no drug is without its side-effects - afterall, anything that has the potential to benefit your body also has the potential to do harm. A 'therapeutic effect' is a desired effect, and a 'side-effect' is an undesired effect - but both are simply effects of the same drug on the body, and go hand in hand. Remember that 80 percent of all ailments are self-limiting and require no treatment. Therefore, think carefully about the costs and risks as well as the benefits before taking any medicine.

You should be especially wary when your doctor prescribes the 'latest' and newest drug. For one, such a drug is likely to be much more expensive than its 'older' counterparts. Drug companies nowadays spend large amounts of money in order to induce doctors to prescribe their newest products because they are much more profitable foremth . Also, remember that newer does not always mean better - in fact, new drugs may be more dangerous. Since they have not been used for long enough, some of their harmful effects may not become apparent until many patients consume them over a long period of time. Older medicines, which have been tried and tested over many years, are a safer bet, since doctors have considerable experience with them and are aware of their risks and benefits. For example, Duract, a new non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug(painkiller),was with drawn from the market just a year after being approved for use in the USA (after having undergone rigorous testing), since it was linked with a dozen cases of liver failure, four of them fatal!

Surprisingly, no one knows how many deaths, injuries, and side-effects prescription drugs cause each year - there is no agency which monitors these effects. Who's responsible for this modern epidemic of drug-induced disease? All of us! Pharmaceutical companies, for a less-than-rigorous study of their approved drugs; physicians, who incorrectly prescribe drugs, or over prescribe the 'latest' drug; patients who don't follow instructions or don't tell their physicians about the other drugs they are taking; and even government agencies for not monitoring drug safety more effectively.As a patient, you can help to protect yourself from a therapeutic misadventure by not opting for a newly-approved drug unless there aren't any other, well-established alternatives.

Older people are especially prone to the problem of unnecessary drugging. Often, once a doctor starts a patient on a medicine, the latter continues taking it, whether or not he needs it anymore. And each specialist adds to the drug overload, without having a clue about what else the patient is taking. Not uncommonly, it turns out that only one or two of the assortment of drugs is really needed and, once the unnecessary medicines are eliminated, the patient starts feeling much better. In contrast to today's enthusiasm for drugs, it is wiser for you to be a 'therapeutic nihilist', in order to let the body heal itself whenever possible.

What can you do to help prevent medication errors? The answer is simple. Learn to ask questions. Just because you haven't been trained as a doctor doesn't minimize the important role you play in preventing errors with regard to your medicines, or those for your family. By the very process of asking questions about your medicines, you understand why you are taking them, how to take them, and what to expect so that you can detect potential errors. The most common causes of medication errors are similar drug names, similar packaging and labelling, and illegible prescriptions.

The following factors should always be borne in mind:

  • Avoid medicines to the extent possible. Pregnant women, for example, generally get along fine without drugs (or with very few drugs).
  • Periodically, bring all your medicines, including over-the- counter drugs, to your doctor for review. Ask your doctor for an information prescription, so you can check for drug side-effects and interactions. Be sceptical of patently extravagant claims made by pharmaceutical advertisers.
  • Remember that 'big guns' are not needed to treat self- limiting or non-dangerous diseases, and that side-effects of medicines may well create more problems than the original illness.
  • Take oral medicines as far as possible. Such medicines are usually equivalent to injections and are both cheaper and safer. Many patients still naively believe that injections are more 'powerful', but this is purely a myth!
  • Beware of physicians who prescribe new medicines at each visit without modifying or discontinuing previously prescribed drugs. Many patients are not happy unless the doctor gives them a medicine for their problem, even if this is not required - and most doctors are happy to pander to their patient's fancy. In fact, many patients still judge the calibre of doctors by the length of their prescriptions and by the cost of the medicines they prescribe!
  • Taking two or more drugs at a time can complicate matters considerably, since they can interact with each other, resulting in either adverse effects, or a reduction in their efficacy. The best way of minimizing this problem is to limit the number of drugs you consume, taking only what is strictly necessary.

OTC drugs

Drugs that can be purchased without a prescription are referred to as over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, and these have become a worldwide phenomenon in the present era of globalization. Common OTC medicines include pain relievers, laxatives, cold-relieving preparations, and antacids. They are consumed rather indiscriminately by millions of people, but think carefully before purchasing an OTC drug. Do you really need a medicine in the first place? For example, rather than popping a sleeping pill into your mouth every night, a glass of warm milk may provide abetter solution for your insomnia.

Similarly, simple measures such as steam inhalation and salt- water gargling can provide as effective relief from a sore throat as can medicines. Unfortunately, most people would rather take a pill for every ill. More than 100 OTC drugs are available for treating the common cold - none of which have been shown to be effective.

Just because a medicine is available over the counter does not mean it is completely safe, and you should always check with your doctor before taking it. Sometimes, OTC drugs can actually be harmful. For example, taking painkillers over many years can cause kidney failure and swallowing tablets to self-treat a fever may mask certain illnesses such as tuberculosis or malaria. Don't just depend on a friend's advice or on your chemist's suggestions: always discuss OTC drugs with your doctor.

You should also discuss your medication with your chemist. Unfortunately, chemists still represent an underutilized resource in India. Every chemist's shop must have a duly qualified and trained pharmacist. Pharmacists are professionals who have done a four-year course in a pharmacy college and are knowledgeable about medicines and their effects. If you have any doubts, seek out the pharmacist in the chemist's shop; the clerk or the shopkeeper may not know anything about medicines.

You should be able to identify your medicines properly. Many errors are made at home by taking a wrong tablet or capsule that appears similar to another family member's medication. The ability to recognize your medicines can help in preventing you from consuming the wrong drug. If you believe an error has occurred, contact your doctor, pharmacist, or nurse as soon as possible. Do not take the medication until all your doubts have been dispelled.

As far as possible, patronize the same chemist for prescriptions drugs as well as over-the-counter drugs. A complete record of your medication history can be kept at the chemist's shop, and some modern chemists have now installed computers that allow them to store the details of the medicines you are taking. This precaution is especially important if more than one physician has been prescribing medicines. A competent pharmacist can also spot hazardous combinations of medicines, and help you avoid possible dangerous drug interactions. Always keep medicines in their original containers. Many drugs look alike and this can cause an 'identification crisis'. Never use another person's medication; and never experiment with medicines just because a friend recommends them. Similarly don't 'play doctor' by lending your medicines to your friend or relatives. Discard all medicines once they have reached their expiry date.

Always remember that you are the one taking your medicines. Therefore, ensure that you are well informed about them, so that you can take them safely. Every time a medicine is prescribed, please make sure that Information Therapy is prescribed with it as well. In most instances, it is as important as the medicine itself!

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