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Why you should keep an accurate list of your medications handy

An older female patient smiles as a provider speaks and writes in a chart

Being able to tell a provider what medications you or a loved one take could be a life-saver

Why medications matter

Medications—both over-the-counter and by prescription—can make a big difference in how we feel from day to day.

Whether you take a few vitamins, but especially if you take several pills regularly, you are the one who knows best what you take and how you feel when you do—or don’t take them.

Have you ever been in the doctor’s office and heard the question “What medications are you taking?” You might think, “Why are they asking? Isn’t that in my medical record?”

More than likely the list of medicines is in your record. But the medical assistant or doctor isn’t asking the question to annoy you. It’s because they want to be sure—for the sake of your health—that the record is accurate and that nothing has changed.

This is particularly important in an emergency. Pharmacist Karen Schwallie, RPh, CACP, of PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, Washington, describes the difficult scenario that can unfold in an urgent healthcare setting.

“We’ve had patients who are very ill come in with no family with them and share with us only a small amount of information about the medicines they take…something like, ‘I take a little pink pill in the morning and a blood thinner,’” she says.

Depending on the situation that “bare minimum” information isn’t nearly enough for the healthcare professionals caring for a patient to feel comfortable taking the next steps. “Unless a patient or a close loved one provides the information, it can take several phone calls to pharmacies and medical offices to come up with a complete list,” she notes. “Most importantly, the time spent on tracking down medications can delay urgently needed medical care.”

In the medical world, the problem of not knowing all of a patient’s medications can be complicated. Here's why:

  • People might go to more than one pharmacy to have prescriptions filled.
  • Some people might see more than one doctor or provider. And care teams can change quickly after major medical events (for example, when patients are transferred from a hospital department to another facility).
  • Some medications have more than one name. And some medication names can be dangerously similar.
  • Sometimes, people will take medications differently than prescribed.
  • People might take vitamins, supplements or naturopathic products that aren’t prescribed.
  • Healthcare computer systems don’t always communicate with one another, depending on where you go.
  • Prescriptions change.

In short, there’s no easy way for healthcare providers to know your exact medications with full certainty—unless you tell them.

Until there are better ways, in our everyday world, one solution is simple. Make a list of all medications you take and help your loved ones do the same. This medication list will be a valuable safety tool for you and your providers.

It can prevent errors, such as missing medications or doubling up on the same or similar medication. It can also prevent dosing mistakes (too much or too little) and negative interactions between two or more medications.

Keeping an accurate record can help ensure you avoid serious complications, admission to the hospital or even death. It serves as a critical lifeline.  

Making your list

It’s important for your medication list to fully reflect everything you take. “Medications” include:

  • Prescriptions
  • Drug samples
  • Over-the-counter drugs (for example, aspirin or ibuprofen)
  • Vitamins
  • Herbal/naturopathic remedies
  • Nutritional supplements
  • Dietary supplements
  • Vaccines
  • Respiratory therapy treatments
  • Radioactive medications
  • Diagnostic/contrast agents
  • Intravenous medications

Schwallie advises that your list also include the following information:

  • Your name, date of birth and any medication allergies or adverse effects
  • Name of each medication (brand and generic), vitamin, herbal or naturopathic product
  • Strength (for example, 200 milligram)
  • Route taken (for example, by mouth or rubbed in)
  • Quantity (for example, number of pills)
  • When taken (for example, once a day OR as needed)
  • Pharmacy where the order was filled
  • Provider who prescribed it

Storing your list

Keep the list handy. Dianna Pimlott, RPH, BSPharm, MHA, director of Pharmacy Services at PeaceHealth Peace Harbor Medical Center in Florence, Oregon, recommends keeping a copy of it in a purse or wallet. Schwallie adds that you can even keep a copy with a family member or on the refrigerator, or store it using a computer program or phone app. Do what you can to make sure it can be found in case of emergency.

Maintaining your list

It’s important to keep the list updated. “If our patients become proactive and ensure that the list they carry with them is accurate at all times, it saves them (and us) time. It’s so much better for everyone involved,” Pimlott explains. She encourages patients to speak up and ask questions as needed.

Make sure to change your list each time you start or stop taking a medication. If you are uncertain about what to include on your list, bring vials with you to your appointments. Ask a pharmacist or primary care provider to assist you in filling out your list or understanding why you’re taking a particular medication. If you’re a PeaceHealth patient, verify that your list matches what is found on your My PeaceHealth record, and that each after-visit summary printed following an appointment is correct.

Assisting others

If you’re a caregiver for someone else or have a family member who is unable to create and maintain a medication list, step in to help. Elderly patients who take multiple medications are particularly at risk for dangerous medication errors.

Making a difference

Armed with your handy, complete and accurate medication list, you can protect yourself from medication-related harm. Schwallie notes, “It can save your life!” And you’ll feel better.