Patients given medication, either over the counter or via prescription, need to know the facts about what they are taking. 

How many should they take?

How often?

And what are the side effects?

These are key questions that patients should be able to answer straight away but are unable to because they have either forgotten what the doctor or pharmacist said or have thrown away the patient information leaflet or even the packet, keeping only the blister pack of pills.

Only two months ago the Royal College of GPs called on pharmaceutical companies to produce improved labelling after a survey by the road safety charity, Brake, found that 12 per cent of patients ignore the warnings on labels or didn’t bother to check them.

Parents with children in their cars driving the same journey every day were struggling to keep focus, losing their sense of awareness or having impaired vision - the reason being they had taken medication without realising the potential side effects it could have on them.

Like my fellow GPs, I believe that it is of paramount importance for pharmaceutical companies to improve their labelling on packaging by making sure key information cannot be misplaced or removed from the medication  It is their responsibility to make their patients fully aware of the side effects, but too little is being done to ensure this happens.

But why are so few people reading about the side effects? The answer is simple: with traditional forms of packaging it is all too easy for a patient to take their pills out of the box, put them in their bag and throw away the information leaflet and carton. 

However, there are innovations in packaging that some pharmaceutical companies – including Bayer and Sanofi Aventis – have invested in. The Burgopak slider design ensures that the blister pack carrying the pills is connected to the information leaflet at all times so that the patient is almost forced to carry around the medication together with the leaflet wherever they go. This helps to improve compliance and reassures the GP and pharmacist that their patient will know what to take, when to take it and what side effects to look out for.

Pharmaceutical companies need to make changes. Recent research by the World Health Organisation reported that only 50 per cent of people typically follow their doctors’ orders when it came to taking the prescription. That included only 40 to 70 per cent taking their pills correctly for depression and only 43 per cent treating their acute asthma as advised. 

People with blood pressure problems are the worst culprits for taking their medication incorrectly; virtually all people who have high blood pressure have no symptoms of it whatsoever. However, the doctor will be able to tell if they need to take medication. However, unless the patient reads the information leaflet and understands why they are taking the pills, they are less likely to take them as directed as they feel well in themselves; 41 per cent fail to take the prescribed doses of high blood pressure medication.  

In turn, this non-compliance leads to an increase in the number of patients admitted to hospital as those with high blood pressure for example, are then more likely to suffer the possible effects of not taking their pills correctly.

Here is my advice as to how mistakes can be avoided:

  • When prescribing medicine, doctors need to emphasise the potential side effects to their patients;
  • Doctors need to encourage their patients to never throw away the patient information leaflet or the instructions on the pack of doctor-prescribed medicines;
  • Doctors must advise patients to keep the medicine in the cardboard packaging all the time; if taken out of the box and put in a bag, for example, the blisters may burst, potentially contaminating the medication;
  • Pharmaceutical companies need to think of new and innovative ways to ensure that their patients are safe; while branding – giving the medicine an attractive and memorable name - is important, the packaging also needs to display clearly the side effects of the medication.
  • And last but not least, patients need to know that the pills need to be taken for the time directed by the doctor, not just until they feel better. This is especially important for long-term conditions, such as high blood pressure. In this case the medicines are then being taken to keep the blood pressure to normal limits in order to prevent the potentially disastrous consequences that are otherwise more likely to occur, such as a stroke, heart attack or worse.