Prescription medications have joined the ranks of new cars and breakfast cereals. Many of them are being marketed directly to the public through ads on television and in magazines. Some medications get so much free publicity they don't need to be advertised.
"Advertising and publicity can be beneficial if they stimulate people to seek medical care or to follow recommended treatments," says Susan C. Winckler, R.Ph., vice president of policy and communications for the American Pharmaceutical Association. "But just because a medication sounds good on TV doesn't mean it's necessarily right for you."
Medications have the power to fight disease and improve quality of life, but many also have serious side effects. Deciding whether the benefits outweigh the risks depends on several personal factors:
Your age. Your body processes many medications differently as you get older.
Your lifestyle. For example, you may need to avoid drugs that make you drowsy if you operate machinery, other drugs if you smoke.
Diseases or conditions you may have. A medication that helps one condition may make another one worse.
Pregnancy or potential pregnancy.
Possible drug and food interactions. The drug's effect may be strengthened or weakened by other medications, supplements you take or foods you eat.
Knowing as much as you can about the medications you take -- or think you should take -- is especially important if you are a member of a consumer-directed health plan, such as a medical savings account. These plans place more responsibility for health care decisions on your shoulders.
Do your homework
When evaluating whether a medication is right for you, be aware that any medicine can have side effects. Magazine and newspaper ads for medications contain summaries of prescription information, including warnings of possible interactions and side effects. TV commercials usually provide toll-free numbers you can call for information or direct you to a print ad. If the medication is sold over-the-counter instead of by prescription, a similar summary is provided inside the package.
In-depth information regarding prescription drugs can be found in the PDR (Physician’s Desk Reference). This massive reference, updated annually, is available at most larger bookstores, public libraries, and on the internet, and contains the information in the package insert sent with the medication to the pharmacist. For non-medically trained people, the reading as well as the interpretation may be difficult.
"Your pharmacist also is an important resource for reliable information on medications," Ms. Winckler says. "Pharmacists are constantly updating their knowledge of what's new on the market, and they're in a good position to gather feedback on how a drug is working for others." Pharmacists can translate the complex drug information into understandable terms.
Keep an open mind
If you believe you could benefit from a certain medication, "talk to your health care provider about it, but don't be surprised if you receive a prescription for something else instead," says Ms. Winckler. "Your health care provider may know of another drug that's better (or less expensive) for your particular condition and symptoms."
Many conditions require you to make changes in your lifestyle in addition to, or instead of, taking a medicine. For example, you may have to change your diet to try to lower your cholesterol before a cholesterol-lowering drug is prescribed.
If you are in a managed-care plan, you should make sure your plan covers the requested drug. If it doesn't, you may be able to get the medication by paying part or all of the cost. Or, another drug the plan covers may be a good substitute.
If your health care provider prescribes a medication, find out what you need to do to get the best results. Ask your provider what benefits you can expect from the drug. Understand when and how you should take it. Find out about possible side effects and what you should do about them. Many pharmacists provide computer printouts with general information about drugs, including when and how often to take them, whether to take them on a full or empty stomach and other important precautions.
Talk to your health care provider or pharmacist as soon as possible if you're not getting the results you expect or are having any type of unexpected side effects.
"Don't stop taking the drug, though, unless your provider agrees," Ms. Winckler says. "Even the newest and best medication can't help you if you don't take it. You need to do your part as a patient and responsible health care consumer."