Do You Understand Your Doctor’s Prescription?
I have always been interested in learning more about the ingredients in the various common medicines. During school days, chemistry was one of my favorite subjects and may be it is this reason; or it could simply be my general interest in any ‘trivia’! To add to this, I have had the misfortune of having a variety of minor (and a few major) illnesses, resulting in me being at the receiving end of various pills. Over the years, I have made an attempt to understand some of these common medicines, their ingredients, actions, and other properties. In this series of articles, I will make an attempt to provide some basic information of the categorization of common prescription drugs, as well as provide some information about their ingredients and their effects. I will start off with my discussion on why many people today don’t have a basic understanding of this area, and why I feel this is very important. Based on the feedback, I will publish follow-up detailed articles on individual medicine categories.
At the outset, I would like to put out a few clear disclaimers and ground-rules. 1) I am neither a doctor, nor a pharmacist. Hence please consider this article as ‘general information’ only. Please do not use this information to decide on any self-medication/self-treatment strategy. Always consult your doctor prior to taking any medications or undergoing any treatment. 2) While I have researched the various terms and medicines in this article, there might be some inadvertent mistakes or omissions. Please provide me feedback and corrections (especially, if you are a Doctor!). Like some of my previous blog articles, this one too is targeted towards readers in both India and USA; hence I will make some distinctions where necessary. At some places, I will try to provide mappings between American OTC (over-the-counter) medicines and basic medicines in India. This is of particular interest to people like me, who have moved back to India after spending many years in the US.
How many people make an attempt to review, understand, and re-check their tax returns, prepared by their tax-accountants? How many pay attention to their financial planning and investing, in spite of having a good financial advisor? How many get involved in the detailed designing of their homes, after hiring top architects & designers? According to my knowledge, a good percentage of people do spend time on these activities. Yet when it comes to medications, these same highly-educated and well-to-do people can be completely ignorant. A common excuse one would hear is, ‘I trust my Doctor! Why do I need to know this?’ Another one, ‘This is not my area – I am too busy to spend time on this.’ Or one more, ‘If I start thinking about this, I will have too many questions, worries and concerns – potentially driving me towards a hypochondriac behavior! It’s best I stay away from it!’ There are quite a few other similar questions…let me make an attempt to put forth my views on these.
An interesting saying goes this way, “In God I trust; everyone else bring me data!’ Or the famous Ronald Reagan quote, “Trust but Verify”. Clearly, people think it is important to understand and verify the outputs of their financial and tax experts. Same holds true when they work with other specialists. Yet, when it comes to their own personal health, why this sudden blind trust? I have nothing against the doctors; they are doing their noble jobs in the most professional way. The onus is on the patients to have some understanding of what is being prescribed to them; and what course of treatment they are on. Simply saying I don’t understand this, is not the right answer. A top-notch design engineer will go out of his way to understand the minute details around tax codes on his returns, and still be completely clueless about basics of common cold medications. An experienced computer professional will learn the subtle nuances of home building/architecture when building his new house, while not knowing anything about the prescription antacid medicines he has been taking for months. These successful professionals, one would presume, are ‘too busy’ to learn anything about their medications. I guess these are not as important to them as their financial or residential priorities.
In today’s world of constant stress, many people don’t want the added worry about their health & medicines all the time. They would rather have their Doctor worry about it. This third concern about ‘potential hypochondria’ is partially valid. Yet, there is a thin line between complete ignorance on one side, verses full blown hypochondria on the other. Some of my Doctor friends suggest that patients with partial knowledge (especially those that have ‘learnt’ things on the internet) cause more harm to themselves than patients who don’t know anything, and completely trust the Doctors. This may be partially true to some extent. Partial knowledge is always a bad thing. Not only could it cause hypochondria in some patients, it also leads them to often ask irrelevant questions to the Doctors (who, especially in India are highly pressed for time). However the solution for this cannot be to stop learning about the basics. ‘Partial Knowledge’ in any discipline is a bad thing – yet the solution to this cannot be to stop learning! There is this phenomenon in India to blame many things on the ‘internet’ (this is especially prevalent amongst the people of older generations who haven’t been fully exposed to it…). Blaming the ‘internet’ for partial knowledge is like blaming newspapers, or books! What’s the point in blaming the medium? We, the human race haven’t progressed by stopping the learning process. I do agree that the medium needs to be utilized properly.
I think it is imperative that patients understand some basics about the common medications. Moreover, in my view they also need to understand some fundamentals that they should have learnt in their high-school biology class. As medical sciences advance year-over-year, isn’t it the responsibility of the common man to at least be aware of some basics, when interacting with the Doctor? If nothing else, it can speed up the efficiency of the whole diagnosis process.
In this series of articles, I will discuss some of the common medications that most people end up taking at some point or the other. For simplicity sake, I will divide these common medicines into the following categories (this is my no means an exhaustive and complete list. Feedback/additions most welcome).
Basic Pain-killers (Opiates based pain-killers not covered here…)
Anti-Inflammatory – NSAIDs ( and COX2 Inhibitors)
Antibiotics (1st gen – 4th gen)
Common Cold & Cough Medications
Antacids & Other Digestive System Related Medicines
Vitamins & Supplements
Other External-Use Medications
Others (This is a place-holder for other important common meds that are not categorized in the above categories)
In subsequent articles, I will discuss each of these categories in more details. For now, simply classifying common medicines into these categories can be the first step towards their understanding. Note that many of these basic medications are available in the US as ‘OTC’ drugs (Over the Counter – available without any Doctor prescription). In India, while rules are in place to ensure what drugs are sold through prescription only, often times this ends up being implemented at the discretion of the pharmacist.
I understand it can be overwhelming to deal with the myriads of medicine names that are available in pharmacies and drug stores. One problem here is the competition in the drug industry. Most common medicines are out of patent and can be produced virtually by any drug company. Hence multiple versions (brand names) of the exact same medicine are often created. This brand proliferation leads to more confusion. Here’s a simple US example. ‘Motrin’ and ‘Advil’ have the exact same active ingredient – ‘Ibuprofen’. Yet I have seen people who stick with one of these brands, like a true brand loyalist! By the same token, in India – many cold medicines, marketed under variety of different brand names have often times the same list of active ingredients. Same is true regarding various prescription antibiotics. In US, all prescription medications come with a fairly detailed information sheet, from the pharmacist. However, in India no such additional information is available, making the understanding that much more difficult.
How do we start this learning? As I said earlier, the first step is to just understand the categorization. Simple classification is often times the first step in structured learning in most disciplines of knowledge. Secondly, be observant! Next time you look at a medicine bottle; don’t spend time looking at the brand-name. These change all the time. Instead, please look at the ‘active ingredients’. Active ingredients are key chemical compounds in the medicine. These provide the necessary therapeutic properties of the medicine. The ‘inactive ingredients’ serve other purposes such as providing bulk, etc. This will be a good step towards understanding these medicines. Initially don’t worry if you don’t understand these complex chemical names! For now, just try to find the common names across different medicines that you might be taking. Soon you will start noticing the commonalities. You might realize that most cold medicines have an active ingredient of ‘Paracetamol’. This active ingredient is also referred by its other name ‘Acetaminophen’. This is probably one of the most common ingredients found in a variety of common cold medications, fever medications, and pain-killers.
Well, this is already turning out to be a long introduction article…I think I should stop here, and continue further discussions on these categories in the next article! Once again, comments, feedback and suggestions are most welcome.