Friday, January 16, 2015

Just the Right Dose - Helping people understand their prescription drugs

Prescription drugs are an important part of life for millions of people. Some drugs are literally lifesaving, while others make life more comfortable. But these medications have become so commonplace and easily available that they might not be taken as seriously as they should be. And that is very dangerous.

When I began working as a nurse, I was often surprised at how little some of my patients knew about their prescription drugs. When taking a nursing history (an intake interview of sorts), we would ask about what drugs the patients took at home, how they took them, and so on. So many patients would say something like, "oh, I take that little white pill for my diabetes - well, just a half of one really because I don't need to take the full one all the time." Other patients would bring in their medicine bottles, but with several prescriptions in one bottle, all mixed up. Sometimes, I would be handed bottles of expired drugs. I was even told a few times to "look at my records," when I asked about prescriptions.

It wasn't unusual for some of my patients to be there because they had not taken their drugs properly. Often, it was that they didn't take their medications as frequently as they should have, but others took too many pills or didn't follow the instructions. Some combined medicines that shouldn't have been combined, others took pills on an empty stomach rather than with food, causing damage. The stories were endless.

Why did so many people not know anything about their pills? Some of it goes back to "doctor knows best," and not feeling they needed to question their prescriptions. And I believe that part of it goes back to just not realizing how important this information and knowledge is.

Last month, I wrote a blog post about prescription drug use in North America and the errors that occur because patients don't understand their medicines properly (Over 200 Billion Dollars For Prescription Meds in U.S. Alone). I found that information as I was doing research for my new book, Just the Right Dose: Your Smart Guide to Prescription Drugs & How to Take Them Safely.

The book, due to be published in ebook and paper format next month (February 2015), covers topics such as how to read a prescription (What do those abbreviations really mean?), how to take or give medicines - including tips for people who have trouble swallowing pills, why certain pills should never be broken or crushed, why over-the-counter drugs should be used as carefully as prescription drugs, and more.

Who should read this book? Anyone who takes prescription drugs and anyone who gives them to someone else - such as a parent who has to give medicines to a child, or a family caregiver, looking after a parent or sibling.

To learn more about the book and to sign up for an email update when it becomes available, please visit

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Setting Goals versus Resolutions

It's that time of year again - New Year's Eve is around the corner and people are planning their resolutions for 2015. Gyms will be packed with people who have the best intentions of getting fit again, diet programs will see an uptick in memberships, stores will sell more organization tools, and many people will be making lists of things that they plan on improving on. I'm not one of them.

I've never made resolutions for the new year - at least I can't recall ever doing so. My new year always seems to be in September, when children go back to school and work places return to normal after employees have returned from summer vacations. January 1 doesn't seem like a new year to me. The week before and the week after are the same - not like September when the season is changing and new opportunities seem to be everywhere.

But what about setting goals? Is that different? I think it is. Setting a goal means you want to accomplish something over the course of the upcoming year. The goal could be related to health (losing weight, getting fit, eating better), personal life (learning a new skill, traveling, saving money), or business life (landing a new client, starting a business, changing jobs). A goal seems to be a more practical way of approaching a new year.

Last year, I set a goal to save money for Christmas 2014, starting in January. I used the 52-week savings plan that was circulating on Facebook. But I did it with a twist. The plan said to save one dollar for the number week of the year - so in week one, you saved one dollar. In week two, you saved two dollars, in week 32, you saved 32 dollars, and so on. But I thought that it might be harder to have more money at the end of the year than at the beginning, so I flipped it. Week one, I saved 52 dollars. Week two, I saved 51 dollars, and so on. Sure enough - by the time shopping for Christmas came around, I had a nice sum in my savings account to pay cash for everything. It worked. It may not work for everyone, but it worked for me. I met my goal and I was quite proud of myself!

So, what's my goal for 2015? I have a book coming out early next year. It's for the general public on a health issue that most people should find helpful. My goal is to ensure the book is off to a great start, and that marketing and publicity push it to a point that people will see it and think, "hmm, I need this book."

I also want to increase my number of clients. I have some great regular clients for whom I write site content and articles for online and print use, but I'd like to add to that group for a bit more variety. To do that, I need to do more marketing and networking. So, my goal is to get out a certain number of letters of introductions (LOIs) and applications over the course of the year.

For the personal part of my life, I want to learn more about different quilting techniques that are interesting me. I started a new-to-me skill project just before Christmas and am happy with how it is going. But there is so much more I want to learn! My goal is to read, learn, and practice until I feel I've accomplished the new skills.

Do you have goals? What are your goals for the upcoming year?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Over 200 Billion Dollars For Prescription Meds in U.S. Alone

Wow. Just wow.

I'm doing some research this morning for a book I'm working on - about prescription medications. I decided to do a search for how much money Canadians and Americans spent on prescription drugs in the course of one year. The numbers blew me away.

According to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, in 2013, Americans spent $235,447,332,092 on prescription medications - that's over 200 billion dollars. Canadians, with a much smaller population than in the U.S., spent over 2.2 billion dollars, according to the Canadian Generic Pharmaceutical Association (CGPA).

The issue with so many prescription medications given to so many people is that there are some cases where the medicines may cause more problems than they solve. This could be due to the medicines not being appropriate for the particular patient or the patients may be taking them incorrectly - a major problem in itself.

For prescription medicines to be taken properly, the patients or their caregivers have to understand how to take/give the drug, when to take/give it, what it's supposed to do, and when to stop taking/giving it. Unfortunately, this isn't always as easy as it seems.

A study published in 2009 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine looked at prescription drug use and patient errors. The authors wrote:

"Physicians may assume patients can interpret prescription drug label instructions, yet four out of five patients (79%) in this study misinterpreted one or more of the ten common prescription label instructions they encountered."

For the study, 359 adults (average age 49 years) were asked to look at 10 prescription medicine labels and interpret them. According to the researchers:

"Seventy-eight percent of patients misunderstood one or more instructions, with 37% misunderstanding a minimum of three labels."

When I was working clinically as a nurse, I often advised patients, and I now advise family and friends to always double check their prescriptions with their pharmacist. Pharmacists are front-line healthcare professionals and they are often the easiest person to get hold of for matters like this.

Also, as a nurse, I would (gently!) scold patients who would grab the medications I handed them and just swallow the pills, without looking at them. I used to explain to my patients that they should take a look at what they are receiving and ask questions if the pills don't look like the ones that they normally take. There may be a perfectly good reason for that (change in dose, different manufacturer), but there could also be an error. If a patient questioned a medication I gave, I always took it back and double checked it. Most of the time, everything was fine - but there were the odd times when a mistake had been made somewhere along the chain.

So, moral of the story? Know your prescriptions. Know your meds. Ask questions. It's your right to know what you're putting in your body.

Friday, September 26, 2014

It's Duh Study Time Again

As a health writer, I read many press releases about articles and studies that have been or will be published in the medical journals. Some of these are quite interesting while others are, quite frankly, head scratchers.

I've written before about my idea of Duh Studies - studies that make you think, "Seriously? They had to study that?" This week, I found two great entries for the Duh Study database, two days in a row. I don't think that has happened before:

"Pain keeps surgery patients awake, extends hospital stay." Did you know that? That if you have uncontrolled pain, you can't sleep, which could in turn affect your ability to heal? To be honest, this particular one bothered me because pain is an issue that is often not taken seriously. I wrote about the myths involved in the whole area of pain when I was preparing to give a talk on chronic pain. But when we need studies to tell us that people who have just been cut open, had joints taken out and replaced and then sewn back up have pain? Wow. Just wow.


"Not all Hispanics are the same when it comes to drinking." Another doozy. Do I even need to write down what I find offensive about this one?

"A new Michigan State University study indicates that the risk of alcohol abuse and dependence can vary significantly among different subgroups within the population."

I'm just shaking my head on this one.

Some people may say, "what's the harm in these?" While there is no actual harm (that I can think of) in these types of studies, I do think that they lower the value of research overall. What kind of impression do these types of findings give to laypeople who read that researchers are spending such valuable time and money in these ways? One can argue that it is important to study obvious things in order to move forward to more intricate details and perhaps this is true. If that is the case then perhaps it's the media's fault, for even making news out the findings? I don't know.

Do you have any Duh Studies to add?