6 crucial questions to ask before filling a prescription

“Do you have any questions?” You’ll hear it from your doctor, the nurse and likely the pharmacist when you get a new prescription. Maybe you don’t have any questions, or maybe they won’t ask; maybe you trust drug makers and your doctor to account for any and all potential concerns before you’re given that bottle with your name on it. But asking the right questions is a necessary backstop, protecting you against potentially dangerous side effects, drug interactions and surprise medical costs.

Nearly 70 percent of Americans take at least one prescription drug in a typical year, according to researchers with the Mayo Clinic. In 2014 alone, an estimated 4.3 billion prescriptions were filled, at a cost of almost $374 billion. Considering that medication errors kill an estimated 7,000 people a year in hospitals alone, it’s clear that asking these questions before you take your medicine could save you headaches and safeguard your health.

1. Am I at risk for drug interactions?

“All medicines have benefits and risks,” according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency tasked with approving drugs for use. These risks can be multiplied in people with certain medical conditions or those taking other prescription drugs. Make certain your doctor is aware of all medications you’re taking, including supplements, and ask for your doctor’s help in weighing whether the anticipated benefits of your new prescription are worth the risks. 

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2. What side effects should I look out for?

Prescription drug side effects can range from relatively minor issues, such as upset stomach, to severe complications like liver damage. Talk with your doctor about all of the anticipated effects, particularly those that would warrant medical attention. Knowing what to look for, and which effects are most serious, will make it easier to identify a serious reaction before it turns into a medical emergency.

3. What is my dose, and how should I take the medication?

Medication errors can happen when doctors write down prescriptions, when pharmacies fill them and when patients take their medications incorrectly. Ask your physician how much you should be taking and when is the best time for your dose. If you get conflicting advice from the pharmacist or the label on your bottle, contact the prescribing doctor immediately to clear up any confusion. 

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4. Is there a generic form available?

Generic medications can save you hundreds of dollars over their brand-name counterparts. But sometimes doctors don’t think to give you the option, locking you in to a brand name by writing “dispense as written” on the script. If a generic is available, ask for it, particularly if you are uninsured or have high out-of-pocket medication costs. The FDA requires generic drugs to be comparable to brand names in both safety and effectiveness, so don’t worry about getting less bang for your buck. 

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5. Is this drug in my insurance plan’s formulary?

Just like insurance companies limit the physicians in your network, they limit the drugs covered in a formulary. Your doctor might not know whether the prescribed medication is covered by your insurance company, but failing to find this out in advance could leave you with a pretty hefty bill when you go to pick up your prescription. A quick call to your insurance company can clear things up. If the drug isn’t included, ask your doctor for a therapeutic alternative that is. 

READ MORE: A cost-saving guide to prescription drugs

Some drugs are designed to treat chronic conditions and can be taken for weeks, months or  years. But others carry greater risks with each refill. If you’ve taken a round of antibiotics and are still sick, getting a refill isn’t just unlikely to make you well, it could make your body and future infections resistant to antibiotics. Likewise, your body can develop a tolerance to pain medications for injuries or surgical sites, making it easy to become dependent. Go into your medication regimen with a game plan, and make a follow-up appointment if you aren’t getting the results your doctor suggests you should.