Caring Currents

The Three-Question Medications Check-Up

Last updated: Jan 06, 2009

Bowl of pills
Image by rselph used under the creative commons attribution license.

So every week you dutifully separate all those pills into their proper compartments in the pill box of the person you look after: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday.... Maybe you fill two boxes, one marked "AM" and one for "PM."

Now ask yourself three questions:

  1. Are you sure what each of those medications is for?
  2. Are you absolutely sure each one is even necessary?
  3. And if they are all necessary, have you made sure they're safe to take in combination?

January is a handy time for caregivers to run a meds check. You might spare the person you love annoying or damaging side effects. You might even save money now being wasted on unnecessary drugs. My dad, for example, was taking pills for blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as eye drops, that he'd "outgrown" the need for, we discovered when he moved and got a new primary care physician.

How to answer those questions:

  • Inspect each medication's label. Write down what you know for sure about the dosage and purpose. Check the date the prescription originated – is it being refilled on autopilot or has the condition been checked recently? Do you have a written list of what side effects to look out for?
  • Now review over-the-counter meds (such as for pain, colds) and supplements (ginko, potassium, vitamins) used. Doublecheck that they're okay with a doctor or pharmacist who knows the entire medication history -- even baby aspirin. Check the dates of OTC drugs and toss what's expired.
  • If you're not sure whether a medication is a short-term or "rest of your life" variety, call the person's doctor or make a note on your calendar to specifically ask this at the next checkup. Ask how you're to know when it's no longer needed. If you're not satisfied with the explanations, consider getting a second opinion, especially if the person is taking more than a few drugs.
  • Transfer prescriptions to a single pharmacy, if this isn't already the case. You'll up the odds someone's keeping an eye on the big picture. A local pharmacist is also a terrific, under-used source of information about side effects and interactions.
  • Make a fresh commitment to helping the person achieve better health through all non-drug means that apply (nutrition, exercise, stress-reduction, etc.). Pills alone are seldom the cure-all. Of course, don't stop any drug without a physician's involvement.

Why should this be your job? Because many people pay less attention to the details of their medication history as they age or it grows more complex. Older generations may blindly follow "what the doctor says" without checking back.

Multiple medications aren't necessarily a bad thing. The danger is when they  become too much of a good thing.

A National Institutes of Health study published late last month found that one in 10 men aged 57 to 85 are taking potentially harmful combinations of drugs. One in 10! I suppose that's not surprising given that fully 91 percent of people in this age group use at least one medication (often for heart disease) and more than half use at least five remedies.

That's a lot of potential side effects and mix-ups.