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Empowering the citizen patient: Tips for taking the reins on medications

Part one of 10 on a series of columns about navigating local health care
Dr. Mindy Smith’s father Arthur uses his colour-coded dispenser to take today’s pills. Photo: Submitted

Managing medications can be a daunting task, especially when caring for loved ones. In this introduction to a 10-part series from the Kootenay Boundary Patient Advisory Committee and Community, Dr. Mindy Smith shares valuable tips for medication management that she uses herself today, and recommended to her patients before retiring from practice.

Over the last few years my brother and I have been taking care of our parents who are now aged 98 and 95. My dad is on a lot of medications and it can be difficult to keep track. We have found that the best way to make sure that we keep these medications straight between us is to make a shared list. The list includes the names of the medications, what they are for, and how best to take them. It also includes medications that he takes without a prescription, like vitamins.

I am often asked for a list of my parent’s meds and having it with me has saved lots of time. My dad sees lots of different doctors and often the information about the medications he is on is not shared between doctors. This can be a problem if they want to prescribe something new that may react poorly with or interfere with something he’s already taking.

My brother keeps the list on his smartphone and I have a spreadsheet on my computer and keep a paper copy in my car. There are also many medication tracking apps available on the App Store/Google Play or you could simply use a Google document and share it amongst those who need to know. This way everyone is singing from the same song sheet and copies can easily be printed.

If you need help with your or your loved one’s list of medications, asking your pharmacist to give you written information about what a medication does and how to take it can relieve any confusion or stress. For people taking five or more medications, you can ask for a free medication review by a pharmacist. They can help identify any medication-related problems and make a plan to resolve any issues, in collaboration with your doctor.

Non-prescription drugs can also have bad effects, so include them on your list and ask if they are safe to take with your other medications. You can also look up the drug using or These sites have information about most medications, possible side effects and interactions with other drugs that you may be taking.

For those people taking a lot of medications, opening a bunch of pill bottles can be challenging, let alone being sure that you took them all! Using a pill dispenser might be the answer. This also makes it easier to see what medications are running low. Dispensers can be filled weekly by the pharmacist, a care provider or the person taking the medication. Another tip to help remember medications is to set an alarm on a watch or other electronic device. Some dispensers even have alarms built in - visit to see reviews of a few good options.

If you are taking a lot of medications, it’s also a good idea to regularly review the list with your doctor, nurse practitioner or pharmacist. This practice can help identify problems, potentially simplify your medication regimen, or identify side effects. Sometimes, if positive lifestyle changes are being made, such as weight loss, counselling, physiotherapy, or dietary improvements, medication dosages can be changed. For example, when my father was having problems with his heart, he was switched to a different diabetes medication that made a big difference.

A great service now available in B.C. is the ability for pharmacists to assist people with renewing many types of medications without having to visit your family practitioner. Pharmacists can also now prescribe medications for minor ailments and contraception to all people, even those who do not have a dedicated doctor or nurse practitioner. See to learn more.

The last thing to consider is how to safely dispose of medications that are no longer needed or are more than a few years beyond the expiration date. My elderly parents, like many other parents, had a whole shelf of medications that they no longer needed — a few antibiotic tablets they hadn’t finished, a medicine that was discontinued. The local pharmacy took them all for safe disposal!

Learning about the medications used for common health problems can be helpful. For a list of common health conditions and their medications, please visit

Mindy Smith, MD, MS is a retired family physician, teacher and researcher and member of the Kootenay Boundary Patient Advisory Committee and Community group.