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Medication Mis-Steps

Take two tablets twice daily for seven days. Take two teaspoons every four hours. These are common directions on many medication labels, but how many Canadians are unable to understand them?

Fifty-five per-cent of Canadians aged 15-65 lack the literacy skills to follow medication labels. These shocking numbers are from a 2003 study of more than 23,000 Canadians. This and several health literacy studies in the U.S. are raising serious alarms about senior safety.

Seniors take 2 to 3 times more medications than the general population. They are more likely to have lower literacy rates, and they report difficulty remembering information on medication labels.

Studies show that patients who have lower literacy or health illiteracy are more likely to report misuse of medications, and disregard a doctor's orders. Also, individuals with lower literacy levels are less likely to discuss their health concerns or participate in making health decisions with a health professional.

An American study also points out that people rarely read warning labels on prescription and over-the-counter medications. Serious complications can result if too much of the drug is taken, if the drug is crushed when it's not meant to be, or taken on an empty stomach when it should be taken with food.

Another study points out that reading and comprehension don't always go hand in hand.   One study's participants were able to read the label correctly, but did not always take the correct dose of the candy tablets. 

Some people under-report their problems with reading.  People could feel embarrassed; one study participant said:  "They might think I'm a bad person." 

So what can you do?

  • Find a pharmacist that uses the "teach-back" method.  The pharmacist explains exactly how you should take the medication, and then asks you to repeat the information to show that you understand.
  • Read the label carefully, including warnings about dosage limits and the potential for interactions with other drugs.
  • Have good reading glasses and a well-lit place to read labels.
  • When using multiple medications, have a blister pack made up by the pharmacy.  Then you need only remember the time to take the medications.
  • Ask your doctor to discuss drug dosages with you. Many people report getting little information from their doctor about how to take their drugs. 

You may think that remembering to take the drug is the most important thing, but taking it incorrectly could render the drug just as ineffective as leaving it on the shelf.

Vol. 3, No. 6
© ElderWise Inc. 2007.

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