The pharmaceutical industry devotes a tremendous amount of energy and resources to ensuring that patients receive the medications and prescriptions they need to improve their health or maintain their well-being. Staff members are trained in what pills are supposed to look like and sorting equipment is used as an added protection to ensure that customers get the treatment they're prescribed.

However, frequently unwittingly, many Americans misuse the medications prescribed for them by their physicians, according to a newly released report.

An estimated 55 percent of Americans last year who were prescribed oral medications misused them on at least one occasion, a recent study conducted by diagnostic information services firm Quest found. Researchers were able to determine this after 3.1 million patients submitted to lab testing, wherein doctors could detect what medications were in their bloodstream. All told, 54 percent of lab tests indicated misuse, up slightly from 53 percent in 2014, but down significantly from 2011 when the misuse rate was 63 percent.

"The key takeaway from this massive, nationally representative analysis is that despite some gains, a large number of patients use prescription drugs inappropriately and even dangerously," warned Harvey Kaufman, M.D., Quest Diagnostics senior medical director. "The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's] recent recommendations to physicians to carefully weigh the risks and benefits of opioid drug therapy are a step in the right direction, but clearly more needs to be done to address this public health crisis."

Dangers when combining medicines
To better inform patients about their prescriptions, pharmacists will often attach warnings to bottles, informing them in no uncertain terms of the side effects of pharmaceuticals, including the risks of mixing medications or using alcohol. Last year, 45 percent of Americans used prescriptions with something that they shouldn't have, the study revealed.

One of the more dangerous combinations is using opioids with sedatives, noted F. Leland McClure III, Quest Diagnostics medical affairs director and co-author of the report, "Prescription Drug Misuse in America 2016."

"The discovery that a growing percentage of people are combining drugs without their physician's knowledge is deeply troubling given the dangers," McClure explained. "Perhaps patients do not understand that mixing even small doses of certain drugs is hazardous, or they mistakenly believe prescription medications are somehow safe."

In addition to ensuring that patients are fully informed about side effects and the dangers of combining some prescriptions with others, the Institute for Safe Medication Practices offers some recommendations health care organizations can use to ensure that they're prescribing the appropriate medications and in the proper doses.

Effective labeling and instruction is a key part of health care management and patient communication.Effective labeling and instruction is a key part of health care management and patient communication.

Provide written and verbal instruction
For example, ISMP suggests that pharmacies have their labeling equipment serviced so that directions on dosing are clear and unambiguous. Additionally, verbal instructions should accompany the written form, making sure to emphasize what specific medications shouldn't be combined with others and the dangers of overdosing.

Avoid generic terminology
Pertaining to liquid medicines that are administered by a cup or a syringe, health care organizations and pharmacies are encouraged to use metric units when labeling dosages rather than generic terminology like "spoonful." ISMP noted that it receives numerous reports each year regarding patients who had to be hospitalized after misunderstanding how much was in the average spoonful. Milliliters is the best metric unit to use for describing daily or weekly doses.

Put confusing word roots in bold type
As health care professionals are well aware, medications can sound the same but do very different things. As reported by, last year, a 21-year-old man had to be hospitalized after experiencing health complications shortly after taking a prescription as instructed by his physician. It turns out the pharmacy prescribed him with Hydralazine, which is used to treat high blood pressure, when he should have received hydroxyzine, an allergy relief product. Pharmacies can better avoid these mix-ups by using labeling methods that distinguish where and how products differ, such as by putting word roots in all caps and bold type (e.g. hydrALAzine, hydrOXYzine, acetoHEXAmide, acetaZOLAmide).

ISMP has a list of several other similar-sounding prescriptions and how to make them more distinguishable.

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