Doctors Say Too Many Patients Can't Name The Drugs They Take

Too many patients don’t remember the names of the medications they’re on, posing problems for doctors who are trying to treat them, warn researchers at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. About 40% of the patients surveyed “could not accurately recall what drugs they were taking,” and among those with “low health literacy,” the rate jumped to 60%.

The patients in the study were selected from three community health centers in Michigan and were all taking high blood pressure medications. The average age was 55.

The author of the study suggests that patients bring their prescription bottles with them if they visit a hospital, and carry the name and number of their pharmacy so that any questions can be quickly answered. We think these tips are especially important for the elderly, which is why we’re going to make our grandmother a “pill vest” for Christmas with three dozen little pockets on it for all her prescriptions. (Hi, grandma!)

He also suggests that generic drugs be given simple, easy-to-remember and easy-to-pronounce names just like name brand drugs, since many people have trouble with the multi-syllable chemical names they’re usually sold under. Do any health professionals on the site know whether there are legal issues preventing this?

“Name that drug: Many patients can’t” [Reuters]
(Photo: Getty)


Edit Your Comment

  1. timmus says:

    Really the patient should not be saddled with this kind of responsibility, especially those who are elderly or those who are metaphorically brain dead. The medical system should have devised a system long ago to take care of this. Isn’t this what medical records are for?

  2. Namilia says:

    My father used to work in a pharmacy, and to assist my grandmother he created a card that listed all her medicines and their dosages. Perhaps this would be a more economical idea rather than lugging all the bottles to the doctor’s office and pharmacist.

  3. asynja says:

    I guess I would fire back “too many doctors can’t name the price for the procedures they order”…

  4. Jeri Dansky says:

    I’m with Namilia. My mom was taking quite a number of medicines, and there was no way she’d remember them all – and the list changed frequently. I typed up a simple text file with all her prescription information, My brother and I took turns taking her to medical appointments, and we always had the most recent file with us. (It also resided on the back of her apartment door – in case of emergency ambulance calls.)

    We also kept track of the history of her medications in this file – what had changed, when, and why. Bad reactions to particular medications were noted at the very top.

    This was hugely helpful to us and her doctors. It was also invaluable when medical emergencies happened; you don’t want to be sitting in the emergency room of a hospital with your sick parent, trying to fill out admission forms and remember what medicines he or she is taking. (A medical history also helps. Try remembering what surgeries were done when, especially under stress.)

    I also carried (and had on the back of her door) a list of all her doctors and her pharmacy, and their phone numbers.

    Yes, it would be great if there were systems in place to track this – but it’s amazing how poor medical records communication can be. We even had to fill in new paperwork when she changed floors in the hospital. Somehow the emergency room couldn’t just give the information to the department where she was admitted.

    There are also systems like – but simpler tools worked well for my family.

  5. FLConsumer says:

    That’s alright, it’s not like most doctors check for drug interactions when prescribing drugs either.

  6. MercuryPDX says:

    @FLConsumer: They also don’t know about other OTC medications/supplements their patients are taking when the patient doesn’t think it’s important enough to tell them.

    My dad suffered a stroke a few years back, and has a daily regimen of Dilantin to control seizures. In order to be effective, a certain level needs to be maintained in his bloodstream.

    He and his friends are at that time of life, where the local GNC is a proverbial fountain of youth. When one of them took something that showed some kind of good result, he told the others, who immediately went out to buy it because what works for one is enough empirical evidence to convince the rest that “it will work for me too”.

    The GNC clerks were more than happy to sell them whatever they asked for without even suggesting they run it by their doctor first, and I wouldn’t expect them to be on top of things like a pharmacy would.

    Out of nowhere, my dad began to have seizures. The doctor didn’t know what could have caused the drop in his levels, and my dad said he wasn’t skipping pills (he wasn’t), so even though he adjusted the dosage it happened again a few weeks later.

    During his hospital stay after the second seizure, I decided to raid his medicine cabinet and bring every vial of oil, multivitamin, and dietary supplement into his doctor’s office for review.

    Turns out it was a combination of GoldenSeal, Nettle and one or two of the other “all natural herbal” supplements my dad was self medicating with. My dad didn’t think to tell the doctor he was taking them, because they weren’t prescription. The doctor explained to him what supplements he could take, and made him promise to not take anything new unless he ran it by him first.

  7. yg17 says:

    Does it count if you can’t pronounce them? I’m on a couple generic ones that don’t have an easy trade name to remember, instead, they have some long, medicalese name that barely fits on the label.

  8. Benny Gesserit says:

    @Jeri Dansky: You and your brother should be nominated for some sort of reward. I hope your mother knows how lucky she is to have you both.

    Here in Canada, we’re slowly making progress toward implementing HL7 (electronic health records – recorded and managed at source.) Wouldn’t it be nice if the emergency room could, with your mother’s or your permission, access a system with a full health record – info that had been entered by her physicians, hospitals and pharmacies?

  9. Optimistic Prime says:

    This can’t really surprise anyone. My grandfather was on an easy 20 different meds by five different doctors before he passed away. My mother and father are almost at that point.

  10. faust1200 says:

    I can name the 2 that I take and a half dozen or so I would like to take.

  11. Hoss says:

    I routinely say “don’t know” when the doc asks about meds. I go to the doc once a year, if he doesn’t have an easy way to find the current prescripts, that’s his tough luck. He should be more professional and just quote the lastest information and ask if it’s right. That would give me a better feeling that he’s on top of things — remembers my name and a couple things about me — if that too much to ask the medical community?

  12. Hambriq says:

    Yeah, no joke. I routinely have this conversation on the phone:

    “Pharmacy, this is Hambriq speaking, how can I help you?”
    Hi… My name is Jane Doe, I’d like to get my prescriptions refilled.
    “Okay, which ones?”
    All of them?”
    “*Browses through list of 10 different medicines, all with different refills dates, some of which have no refills left and some of which probably shouldn’t be refilled.* Yes m’aam.”
    I’ll be up there in a half hour.

    Here’s some advice to people who are on a lot of medications to make sure that you remember them. Because one of the biggest factors hindering treatment with pharmaceuticals is patient non-adherence.

    1.) Make sure all of your prescriptions are set to be filled on the same date. You don’t want have to remember that on the 7th, you pick up your metformin and on the 12th you get that blood pressure drug with the funny name and then on the 19th you get that one yellow pill for the tingly pain in your feet. Next time you visit the doctor, tell him that you want a new prescription with all of your medications on it. If you get a new prescription in the middle of the month, have the doctor write two prescriptions: one for enough days to last you until the end of the month, and another that you can turn in so it’s filled on the same day as the rest of your medicines.

    2.) Make sure all of your prescriptions have the same number of refills. Doctors tend to be very arbitrary with the number of refills they allow, so pick a number your doctor is comfortable with and stick to it. If you do get another prescription from another doctor, explain the situation and tell him you’d like X refills, so that those refills run out at the same time as your other medicines. You don’t want to get stuck forgetting about a medicine because one of them required refill authorization from the doctor and the other 9 didn’t, and the pharmacy staff either didn’t notice or didn’t bother to let you know.

    3.) When your medicines are about to run out of refills, call your pharmacy first, then call your doctor and tell him that the pharmacy will be sending over a refill request. Don’t do this the day before your pills run out. Plan ahead.

    4.) This has been mentioned before, but keep a list. If you are taking care of a parent or relative or friend, make a list for them. Keep it updated, and have them bring it to the pharmacy every time they get their prescriptions refilled. I can’t count the number of times someone has walked out of the pharmacy without one of their medicines, and never came back for it until the last month. I will call people and let them know when that happens, but unfortunately, not everyone will take that responsibility.

  13. Hambriq says:

    He also suggests that generic drugs be given simple, easy-to-remember and easy-to-pronounce names just like name brand drugs, since many people have trouble with the multi-syllable chemical names they’re usually sold under. Do any health professionals on the site know whether there are legal issues preventing this?

    I don’t necessarily know about LEGAL issues, per se, but this would be a logistical nightmare. The problem with brand names is that they have no rhyme or reason to their name. With generics, you can generally tell exactly what a medicine will be used for based on its chemical name. You see “-prazole” and you think “PPI”. You see “-pril” and you think “ACE Inhibitor”. You see “-sartan” and you think “ARB”, etc. etc. etc.

    What I have continually suggested, that continually falls on deaf ears, is simply changing the format of prescription labels. Rather than saying “ZOLPIDEM TARTRATE 10mg” in huge letters and then “Substituted for Ambien 10mg”, have the label simply say “Zolpidem Tartrate, the generic equivalent of AMBEIN 10 MG,” with the brand name being in the larger font.

    Both parties win. Health professional can still refer to the drugs by their more intuitive names, and patients can still refer to the drugs by their easy to remember brand names. Plus, it would eliminate a lot of the generic drug resistance that you get from people who are initially shocked to see their Vicodin replaced with “Hydrocodone Bitartrate 5mg/Acetaminophen 500mg” tablets.

  14. mamacat49 says:

    @Hambriq: great list. I’d like to add one more:

    5. make a copy of the list and take it with you everywhere–in your wallet next to your insurance card. I love it when patients actually pull out a list. Makes all of our jobs easier when you have the correct info starting out. I can tell at a glace what meds you’re on and no one has to remember any odd names.

  15. nidolke says:

    Shouldn’t this info be on my ~records~

  16. @FLConsumer: That’s been my experience. I’ve had doctors tell me that a new prescription couldn’t be causing the new pain I was having even though it’s listed as a side effect in the literature that comes in the box.

    @Hossofcourse: Heck, I’d settle for the doctor reading the information I just gave to the nurse 30 seconds ago. I hate having to give the same information over and over again when I go to the doctor.

    The Health Center of the University I went to implemented a new computer system before I graduated. You could fill in the answers to the questions they ask on a computer while you waited and the exam rooms had computers the doctors and nurses could use to look up information. Way better than filling out multiple forms just to have both the nurse and doctor ask the same questions again.

    I know most places won’t have the money for all that but can’t they just look at the form I filled out?

  17. Anonymous says:


    Unfortunately I can’t afford to be that nonchalant and say “I don’t know”, but I definitely agree that it would be more professional if they read the list to me. I have routine check-ups every 3-4 months. Why can’t the nurse say, “I see at your last visit that the doctor changed your dosage of X to 100MG per day. Is that the amount you’re taking now? And are you still taking Y and Z regularly?”

  18. cashmerewhore says:

    there are several online medical records management companies, example: [CMI] that will provide online storage, as well as a free flash drive with membership that will install on any computer and provide access to medical records. i realize that this may not be the easiest since grandparents aren’t the most computer literate of family members, but it could be something that you set up & manage for them over the holidays.

    i have surprised medical students by not only knowing names of medications but accurate dosages of scripts well over a year old. i also work in healthcare. i am my mother’s walking medical records storage.

  19. bostonguy says:

    A few years back, I went through a terrible health emergency that lasted about 4 years. During that time, it wasn’t uncommon for me to end up in the ER and being admitted, on average, every 2-3 weeks. Every time we drove to the ER, we first printed out a constantly updated medical history, and brought 10+ copies. When you actually get into the ER, and are obviously ill, you’d be surprised at the number of different people that come in & out of your bay asking for info. Sometimes they’re representing different specialists that aren’t on call that night but are tracking you, or they may be one of the many students working a rotation at the time.

    When you are on chemo, are septic with a 107F fever, and your wife was forced to drive an hour to the ER at 3AM, neither of you should be expected to answer the same 10 questions 30 times in a row.

    Be prepared!

  20. Anonymous says:

    I get prescriptions filled by Medco and they find out about any scripts filled at any other drug stores. Why can’t Docs and Hospitals just use that data?

  21. Bryan Price says:

    I keep a business card printed with all my drugs, prescribed and OTC. I’m allergic to Xanax, also, so I’ve got that written in red at the top of my card. (Xanax increases my blood pressure, and with my high blood pressure, not a good thing, although it certainly does work as an anti-anxiety drug!)

    I’ve currently got my wife’s medications on the back of it (I identify who it’s for on each side), but putting the numbers of my doctors and pharmacists on the back (they will not fit with what I’m taking) might be the better idea.

  22. bnosach says:

    Obsession with drugs in the US is just overwhelming.

  23. scarletvirtue says:

    @mamacat49: If I did that, I’d have a list the size of a phone book (okay, that’s a gross exaggeration … but it does feel that way).

    Thankfully, I do remember my meds – if only because I have to give that recital to a new doctor. And if I couldn’t, I have my MedicAlert bracelet, and updated records through them.

    @lisa1120: My allergist’s office does that when I come in for a visit, and my internist has a website where I can update my personal records as needed.

  24. MercuryPDX says:

    Some of the posts from last night are missing, including mine?