The American Recall Center, in celebration of “Patient Safety Awareness Week,” is holding a “Medicine Cabinet Clean-Out Challenge.” For this event, they have asked a few “influential bloggers” (their words, not mine) to write an article about responsibly using your medications and sharing some personal experiences. They asked yours truly to participate, and I was more than happy to oblige. I know it is coming a couple days late, but today’s article is the piece I wrote for their “challenge.” I hope you enjoy it, and that it makes you think about your own pharmaceutical use.
Few areas of research have made as much progress or shown more growth in recent history than the field of medicine. Just in my brief lifetime there have been numerous, major medical advancements that have resulted in longer lifespans, as well as a better quality of life, for people with all sorts of diseases and disorders. One of the areas of medicine that has developed and changed the most over this time is the pharmaceutical industry. We now have instant, unlimited access to hundreds of over the counter medications, and there are thousands more available by prescription, that would have been considered witchcraft just a decade ago. While these powerful drugs now at our disposal can be extremely helpful and alleviate a lot of pain and suffering, they can also be quite dangerous. If not used correctly, these capsules and tablets can quickly go from life saving medications to life threatening poisons. It is now our responsibility, as individuals with infinite access to these drugs, to make sure that we are taking the proper care when dealing with pharmaceuticals. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Great power involves great responsibility.” In celebration of “Patient Safety Awareness Week,” I am going to share with you my own methods for making sure I am a responsible consumer in regards to my medications.
Since I was born with the genetic, neuromuscular disease, spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), I have been in and out of hospitals, seen more doctors, and dealt with the medical field more, than most people twice my age. I have never walked, require nursing care 24 hours a day, and have the lung volume of a toddler. Although there is no cure or treatment for SMA, there are lots of drugs that can treat the symptoms that my disability causes and improve my life dramatically. Thanks to modern pharmaceuticals, I am able to open up my bronchial tubes when my breathing gets weak and manage pain that on a good day is almost bearable. There is not a doubt in my mind that without the various drugs I take on a daily basis, I would not be able to lead the happy, fulfilling life that I do. Part of using these medications to better my life though, is making sure that I am handling them in the proper way, both to ensure my safety and the safety of others. Even though I have a team of nurses who oversee my medical care, which includes my medications, I still believe it is my responsibility to make sure I am using my meds correctly. When I think about how I go about this process of being a responsible medication consumer, three things come to mind. These three areas that come up are storing my drugs properly, taking them correctly, and disposing of them in a safe way.
Storing Your Medications
The first step to proper pharmaceutical consumption is making sure you are storing your medicine in the proper manner. For most drugs in most homes, this means putting them in your “medicine cabinet,” which should be a cool, dark place out of the reach of children. While this is fine for the vast majority of over the counter medications, and even most prescription drugs, there are plenty of situations where there is a lot more to it. In my case for example, I have to store my assortment of medications in three separate areas, based on their type and strength. First, I have my typical “medicine cabinet” that houses my over the counter medications, breathing treatments, and other drugs that are not narcotics or controlled substances. Second, I have some meds that have to be refrigerated, so obviously these go in my fridge. In order to keep them safely separate from food, I put them behind the butter tray in the door of my refrigerator. Third, I have a combination safe hidden in my home that holds the majority of my narcotics and other controlled substances, and I only take out enough of each medication for a few days. The few pills I take out are kept out where I can see them in clearly marked bottles. I keep a watchful eye on this at all times, and only my nursing staff and I know the combination to my safe. With my narcotics, I also keep a running count of any drugs I take or get from the pharmacy, so that I can always go count my meds in the event that I thought some were missing.
In addition to selecting the best location for housing your medications, experience has taught me a couple of other best practices for storing your meds. One is to always, and I mean always, store your drugs in the container they come in. Whether they are over the counter or prescription, all medicine should be stored in the labeled container you got it in. I know it may be convenient to put a bunch of different meds you commonly take in an unmarked bottle (Altoids tin, old contacts case, empty lip balm container,…) and throw it in your purse or backpack, but it can also be quite dangerous. What if you mix up the diphenhydramine and the ibuprofen, take a couple of sleeping pills instead of some painkillers, and get behind the wheel of your car? At best it is dangerous and a potential DUI, and at worst it is a potentially fatal mistake. Additionally, carrying certain prescription drugs, like narcotics and other drugs used recreationally, in any container other than the bottle you got from the pharmacy is illegal in most states. By simply keeping your drugs in the correct, labeled bottle, you can eliminate issues like this from ever happening.
Another important aspect of proper medication storage that can eliminate life-threatening errors, involves not the drugs themselves, but the paperwork that comes with them. Every time you get a prescription, you get the medication your doctor ordered and a small amount of paperwork. These pamphlets that most people quickly discard without even a glance, can contain vital information for the proper handling of the medication. Information like what foods limit the drug’s effectiveness and what other medications can have dangerous interactions with it, may be fresh in your mind today, but three months from now it will not be. Without the accompanying paperwork, you will have no way of knowing all of this important information, which could result in dire consequences. For this reason, it is always a good idea to keep the paperwork that comes with your medications in the same place as the drugs themselves, or at the very least in a single, well-designated place, so that you will always have easy access to it when necessary.
Taking Your Medications
Having access to the documentation that comes with every medicine you pick up is a critical part of safely and effectively taking your meds, which is the second important aspect of being a responsible pharmaceutical consumer. Due to the powerful effects that medications can have on your body, it is vital that you are taking your drugs as they were designed. Even everyday substances, like Ibuprofen and acetaminophen, can do major physical harm if taken incorrectly, which is why properly taking your drugs is so critical. While safe drug use may start with your prescribing physician and the pharmacist, they are just the first line of defense. The person most responsible for ensuring that you take your medicines correctly is you. Since it is your life and well-being that is on the line, it is up to you to be a smart consumer when it comes to your medications. I go through a three step process to educate myself and make certain that I am taking my drugs in the right way, and if you follow this method you will know that you are safely taking your medications. First, have your doctors explain the drugs they prescribe to you and how you should take them. Do not be afraid to ask questions either, because that is the reason they are there. Next, ask your pharmacist about any pertinent information or dangers associated with your medications. Last, read the literature that comes with any new drugs you begin taking. If you do all three of these steps, and they all give you the same information, you will know you are doing things correctly. More importantly, if they do not agree, you will know that something is off, and you will be able to take action to avoid any possible problems.
While I now know to double and triple check the information on my prescriptions before taking them, I did not come by this knowledge by chance. I had to experience the negative, and potentially life-threatening, effects of improperly taking your medications before obtaining this insight. My first experience with improper drug use occurred when I was in graduate school. I had just been prescribed a very potent painkiller by my doctor, and this drug was taken by placing an adhesive patch on your skin (like a nicotine patch). Both my doctor and pharmacist said to simply place a patch on my abdomen, make sure it was securely adhered to my skin, and replace it every two days, and I followed these instructions to the letter. I knew it would take a while for this drug to build up in my system, but with how strong this medication was, I should have felt at least some relief from my chronic pain within a day or two. Even after a week of using it however, I was still in just as much discomfort as I was without the patch. My physician upped my dosage, but still, I felt no relief. As I was tired of being in constant agony from feeling no effect from this potent drug, I decided to do some research on this medication. After doing some Google searches and reading about this drug and how it works, I was able to figure out why this medicine was having no impact on my pain. This particular patch gets into your bloodstream by being absorbed by fats under your skin. I only weigh 60 pounds, and pretty much all of that weight is organs, bones, and skin. Since I did not have enough fat, I could not absorb the drug, and that is why it was so ineffective in controlling my pain. As soon as I talked to my doctor and switched to an oral version of this medication, I finally got the relief I was hoping for from the beginning. It turns out, that if I had just opened up the literature that came with every box of patches and read it, I would have known this information from the start and avoided weeks of suffering.
This story illustrates the importance of being well-informed about your medications. While doctors and pharmacists are extremely knowledgeable and helpful in giving you information about your drugs, they are human, and they do make mistakes. Even though my story may have had a happy ending, this med error could have just as easily done major, and possibly life-threatening, harm to my body. This life and death nature of using medications properly is something that I have experienced first hand. I will share this story with you, and hopefully show you how critical correctly taking your medications can be, in the second part of this article.