New survey shows Australians are not medicinewise

30 January 2011

Research conducted by NPS about how Australians use and understand their medicines has revealed some interesting findings.

Results from a survey of 1500 consumers reported 65% had used a prescription medicine in the last three months, 60% had used an over-the-counter medicine and 45% had used an alternative or herbal medicine.

Encouragingly, when asked where they would go to find accurate information about medicines, most respondents said a pharmacist (64%) and/or a doctor (60%). However, when asked if they did ask questions of their doctor or pharmacist the last time they received or purchased a medicine, 60% said no and 48% said they did not tell their doctor or pharmacist about other medicines they were taking.

Released to coincide with the launch of Be Medicinewise Week, NPS clinical adviser Dr Danielle Stowasser says the research shows it’s time Australians started asking more questions about their medicines.

“Because medicines generally improve our health, often people take them with little consideration. But just as medicines have benefits, they also come with risks. These risks are heightened when people don’t understand what a medicine is, what they’re taking it for and how it could affect them.”

Whilst 92% of respondents agreed that there can be risks involved in using any type of medicine, including prescription, over-the-counter and alternative or herbal medicines, there was some uncertainty regarding what constitutes a medicine.

“The first step to being medicinewise is knowing what is a medicine. Medicines include tablets, vitamins, herbs, eye drops, creams and gels. Medicines don’t just come on prescriptions but include things bought in a pharmacy, supermarket and other stores, and from naturopaths and herbalists,” Dr Stowasser said.

Of those surveyed, less than half considered certain vitamins and herbs to be medicines: multivitamins (23%), echinacea (24%), fish oil (32%). Awareness of Chinese herbal remedies as medicines was slightly higher at 41%.

Other over-the-counter products were not universally recognised as medicines, as more than 23% of respondents said nasal spray for hayfever was not a medicine while 22% did not consider cough syrup a medicine.

“Just because something is sold without a prescription doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t have strong effects, which is why it’s important that Australians start to think of medicines in a much broader sense,” Dr Stowasser said.

Australians are also unsure about identifying what’s in their medicines. While respondents were not expected to know ingredient names, 40% said they would not be able to find the active ingredient on a medicine packet.

“Knowing what’s in your medicines is really important, and can prevent serious problems such as accidentally double-dosing or taking something you’re allergic to. Some medicines are known under several different brand names, and may be different sizes, shapes and colours, but they still contain the same active ingredient. Other medicines might contain ingredients that you didn’t realise. For example, cold and flu tablets and Lemsip contain paracetamol, which is also the main ingredient in Panadol and Herron so taking both actually puts your health at risk,” Dr Stowasser said.

“Asking the right questions is also key to being medicinewise. Think about why you’re taking a medicine, what it’s for and whether it might interact with other medicines, and use trusted information sources like NPS, your doctor or pharmacist to help you make medicines decisions,” Dr Stowasser said.

Be Medicinewise Week runs from 30 January to 6 February and is the launch of a broader campaign developed by NPS to encourage Australians to be medicinewise. For more information about being medicinewise including resources, tips and other people’s medicines use stories go to


Independent, evidence-based and not-for-profit, NPS enables better decisions about medicines and medical tests. We are funded by the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing.