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More than 13 percent of primary care patients do not know why they are taking at least one of their prescription medications

A new study of four primary care practices revealed that nearly one in seven adult patients did not know the indication for at least one of the prescription medications he or she was taking. The patients were least likely to understand the reason for prescribed cardiovascular medications. Patients who were older, black, or had a high school education or less were more likely not to know why they were taking a particular medication.

Patients who don't understand why they are taking a medication may be less likely to adhere to therapy, notes Stephen D. Persell, M.D., M.P.H., of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. The study was supported in part by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (T32 HS00020).

Dr. Persell and his colleagues surveyed adults at the four primary care practices who had received a prescription from a participating physician during a clinic visit. They telephoned patients and asked them to retrieve the bottles of all medications they were currently taking, identify their medications, and state the reason they took each one. A total of 2,340 prescription medications were used by the 616 patients studied. Overall, 13.5 percent of those surveyed did not know the indication for at least one of their prescription medications.

The drug classes for which patients were most likely to report an incorrect indication were cardiovascular drugs (12 percent), asthma medications (5 percent), and estrogen therapy (5 percent). Black patients and patients who had a high school education or less were about twice as likely not to know a drug's indication as white patients and patients with more education. Age was also a factor; older patients were less likely than younger patients to know why they were taking a particular drug.

More details are in "Understanding of drug indications by ambulatory care patients," by Dr. Persell, Heather L. Heiman, M.D., Saul N. Weingart, M.D., Ph.D., and others, in the December 1, 2004, American Journal of Health-Systems Pharmacy 61, pp. 2523-2527.

Editor's Note: Another-AHRQ supported article on a related topic summarizes the research literature concerning barriers to disseminating research findings about medication use into clinical practice, including issues specific to women. For more details, see Col, N.F. (2005), "Challenges in translating research into practice." (AHRQ grant HS13329). Journal of Women's Health 14(1), pp. 87-95.

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