Improving health literacy: What you should know about your meds

If you’re like most Americans, you probably take at least one prescription medication. But do you know enough about the meds you’re taking?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 50 percent of American adults have used at least one prescription medication in the last 30 days. But while medication usage is common, so is taking medications incorrectly, which can have serious consequences, including hospitalization and even death.

One of the biggest issues facing Americans when it comes to medication use is a lack of health literacy. What is health literacy, you might ask?

Let’s first take a look at that question — and then dive in to what you should know about your medications.

Defining health literacy

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines health literacy as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information.”

You might think that the majority of Americans are well-educated and that our level of health literacy overall would be quite high. But that’s actually not true.

In fact, only 12 percent of American adults have proficient health literacy. Put in other terms, that means that almost nine out of 10 American adults lack the basic skills needed to manage their health.

A lack of health literacy occurs for a number of reasons, including a person’s command of the English language, access to health information in plain language, and ability to communicate with health professionals.

Improving health literacy is something that healthcare professionals across the country — and the world — are working on.

But you can also take steps to improve your own health literacy by asking your medical providers as many questions as needed for you to completely understand your health. Read on to learn what you should know about your medications.

Improving health literacy: Know your meds

When a doctor prescribes a medication for you, you may have the prescription filled and take the medication without even really thinking about it.

But in reality, there are a number of things you should know about a medication before you start taking it. It’s a good idea to talk with your doctor about the medication he or she is prescribing while you’re at your appointment.

However, you can also talk with your pharmacist about the medication.

There are six basic items you should know about your medications. Here are the questions you should ask to find out that information:

  • Why am I being prescribed this medication? What does it do?
  • How does this medication work?
  • How am I supposed to take this medication? How frequently and for how long?
  • What do I do if I miss a dose?
  • Could the medication have any side effects?
  • Will this medication interact with other meds or foods I eat?

The World Health Organization put together a helpful video about medication safety — and why it’s important to ask questions.

Medication management: What else you can do

In addition to knowing basic information about your medications, there are other things you can do to ensure you’re taking medication safely.

Once you’ve begun taking a medication, don’t stop taking that medication unless your doctor tells you to. Suddenly stopping many medications can have dangerous side effects, so it’s best to talk with your doctor first.

Be sure to talk with your doctor about all types of medication you take — including prescription medications (whether prescribed by that doctor or another doctor), over-the-counter medications, dietary supplements and vitamins.

If you take multiple medications and find your medication regimen difficult to manage, ask your pharmacist or doctor for suggestions on making it easier.

You should feel comfortable talking with your doctor honestly about any aspect of your health, including your medication usage. Need a doctor? Find one here.