Communicating about medication risk and safety information

One to One

A communication gap exists between patients and their health care providers when it comes to talking about medications—even when discussing the potential benefits and risks of prescription medications. In an effort to bridge this gap, the National Council on Patient Information and Education (NCPIE) has launched a “Talk Before You Take” campaign targeted to pharmacists and prescribers. The campaign is part of an FDA grant awarded to NCPIE to develop, implement, and assess a national educational program on medication risk reduction to promote safe and appropriate medication use.

Risk and safety survey

NCPIE began the campaign with an online survey to determine patients’ and health professionals’ knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors about medication risk and safety information. Following are some key findings: 

  • Approximately 62% of patients were not aware of any safety warnings about their medications. 

  • Ten percent of patients unaware of the possibility of a severe reaction or adverse effect to any of the medications they were taking actually experienced a serious drug reaction.

  • 75% who reported being aware of a safety warning didn’t recall which medication it was for or what the warning was about. 

  • Most patient respondents indicated they prefer both written and verbal communication about drug safety when visiting the prescriber (50%) or while filling prescriptions at a pharmacy (48%). 

  • More than one-half (58%) prefer prescribers to verbally describe the potential risks associated with medications. Older patients, who often have a higher number of comorbidities, expressed more satisfaction with the level and quality of communication than did younger patients.

  • Of the sources used most frequently for medication risks and safety information, 59% of patients cited the Internet, 75% indicated prescribers, and 55% chose pharmacists. 

  • A majority of prescribers said they believe that pharmacists and the Internet are the most frequently used sources of information for patients. Only 31% of prescribers believe they are the primary source.

Pharmacists’ role

The survey results revealed that pharmacists can play a prominent role in helping patients consider the potential benefits and risks of medications so they can make the best choices. Through regular, high-quality communication, pharmacists can counsel patients on how to lessen the possibility of a harmful interaction between a medication and a food, beverage, dietary supplement, or other medication; recognize and avoid adverse effects; and monitor their medications’ effects.

Making sure patients fully understand the potential benefits and risks of their medications is particularly important for new prescriptions and with patients taking multiple medications. One way to do this is through medication synchronization: provide regularly scheduled appointment-based counseling (the appointment-based model, or ABM) that includes a medication regimen risk assessment. See the APhA Foundation’s “Align My Refills” campaign for ways you can engage with patients and caregivers through medication synchronization programs. NCPIE is a lead partner in the campaign.

Counseling tips

These tips from NCPIE can help guide your conversations with patients:

  • Ask patients if they are aware of both the potential benefits and risks of their prescription medications. 

  • Be sure to ask about all of the medications your patients are taking—including OTCs, vitamins, and dietary supplements. Survey results indicated that patients across all age groups communicate information about their new OTCs significantly less often than about new prescription medications.

  • Especially with new prescriptions, ask about any allergies or sensitivities patients may have. 

  • Encourage patients and caregivers to carefully read and follow the medication label directions and written information accompanying the medicine.

  • Remind patients that if they have questions, ask. 

For more information on “Talk Before You Take,” see NCPIE’s website.