Making wise choices about medicines

Do you know what to keep in mind when making choices about medicines and talking with your doctor? Learn how to weigh up the pros and cons of taking a medicine. Find out how to work with your health professional to make the right choices for you.


Working with your health professional to make a choice about a medicine

There can be a lot of information to take in when your health professional suggests taking a new medicine.

Take your time.

  • Ask your health professional if you have time to think things over.
  • You may be unsure of what to do. You can arrange to come back in a few days. This will give you a chance to do some research.
  • You may wish to talk about your choices with a trusted person. This can be other health professionals, a family member or carer.

Take notes when talking to your health professional.

  • If you need help, bring a trusted person eg, a family member, friend or carer to your appointment. Let the doctor know the person is there to support you.

Weigh up your choices.

  • Get information about the benefits and risks of your treatment choices.
  • Think about how they compare and decide which choice is best for you.

Five steps to be medicinewise

1. Ask questions.

  • This will help you make better choices.
  • The next section lists some questions you can ask.

2. Know it’s a medicine.

  • Medicines don’t just come on prescription – they include over-the-counter medicines from a pharmacy, supermarket or other store.
  • They can also be herbal remedies, bush medicines, vitamins and other supplements.

3. Know the active ingredient.

  • Active ingredients are what make your medicines work. The prescription will show the active ingredient before the brand name.
  • Your pharmacist may offer you an alternative brand of a prescription medicine. You can be sure it will work the same way as your normal medicine.
  • Some brands may look different to your normal brand but still have the same active ingredient. Talk to you pharmacist if you are unsure.
    Learn more about the active ingredient and where to find it.

4. Always follow instructions from your doctor or pharmacist.

  • Read the labels and packaging of your medicines with care.
  • For more detailed information, read the consumer medicine information (CMI). It is available for prescription and pharmacist-only medicines, and some over-the-counter medicines. Just ask your pharmacist.
  • You can also use our Medicine Finder to search for the CMI for your medicine.

5. Keep track of all your medicines by using an NPS MedicineWise Medicines List.

  • Your doctor, nurse, health worker or pharmacist can help you fill it in.
  • Keep your medicines list with you.
  • It can be helpful on visits to your health clinic, doctor or pharmacist, or to hospital.

Always talk over any choices about medicines with your health professional.

This video is also available in 15 other community languages.

Questions to ask your doctor about all medicines

Knowing the answers to these questions will help you be medicinewise.

Active ingredient and brand name:

  • What is the active ingredient in this medicine?
  • What's the medicine's brand name?
  • Is it OK to have a different brand if the pharmacist offers me one?

Taking the medicine:

  • How do I take the medicine?
  • When should I take this medicine?
  • Are there any special instructions that relate to food or drink?
  • Do I need to be careful with any other medicines if I am taking this medicine? (Including vitamins, herbal or complementary medicines)
  • What should I do if I miss a dose?
  • How long do I need to take it for?

The expected benefits of the medicine:

  • How will this medicine help my condition?
  • How will I know the medicine is working?

Likely side effects of the medicine:

  • What common side effects should I look out for?
  • Are there any severe side effects, and how likely are they?
  • What can I do to lower the risk of side effects?
  • What should I do if I get a side effect?
  • What else can I do, such as making diet and other lifestyle changes, to help my condition?

Other treatment options:

  • Are there other medicines that don't have the side effects I am concerned about?
  • What would happen if I didn't take this medicine? Would my health get worse?

It can help to have a support person with you when you talk to the doctor. There may be things you miss or don’t understand. You can ask the doctor or support person to explain.

What are the likely benefits of taking this medicine?

A medicine can work in more than one way. It might:

  • prevent an illness from starting
  • reduce some or all of the symptoms
  • stop an illness from getting worse
  • prevent complications developing.

Different medicines can help different parts of your illness. If you were having an asthma attack you would use a short-acting inhaled medicine (a reliever). This will open up your airways and quickly help your breathing. It won’t make future asthma attacks any milder or less frequent. You need to take regular doses of another medicine (a preventer). It will lower inflammation in your airways to make future asthma attacks milder or less frequent.

Ask what benefits you can expect from taking the medicine.

  • Keep in mind how important these benefits are to you. What you see as vital may not be the same as someone else.
  • When you talk to your health professional, explain which benefits are important to you. Explain what parts of your illness trouble you the most. Then you can find out if the medicine can help. There may be other reasons for taking it.

    For instance, many people with high blood pressure do not notice any symptoms. Keeping their blood pressure under control does not seem like an important benefit. But most people want to avoid a stroke or heart attack. Knowing that taking blood pressure medicines can lower the risk of a stroke can help them make a choice.

What side effects should I be aware of?

All medicines can have side effects, though not everybody will get them. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about:

  • common side effects – the (often) less severe side effects that you are more likely to get
  • severe side effects – which are often less likely, but may have a greater impact if they do happen
  • what you should do if you have side effects.

You always need to weigh up the side effects of a medicine against the likely benefits. You should also be aware of the chance of interactions between different medicines.

Speak to your doctor or pharmacist to find out more about side effects.

  • You can also read the consumer medicine information (CMI). It is available for prescription and pharmacist-only medicines. Just ask your pharmacist.
  • You can also use our Medicine Finder to search for the CMI for your medicine.

Find out more about medicine side effects and interactions.

What would happen if I didn't take this medicine?

Some illnesses, such as colds or flu, get better by themselves without you taking any medicine.

Other conditions will get worse. It may cause long-term damage if you don't take medicine to treat them.

Talk to your doctor. Find out what will happen to your health if you don't take the medicine.

How will I know if the medicine is working and how long will that take?

Some medicines, such as pain relief medicines, should work almost straight away. Others can take 1–3 weeks or longer before you may notice an effect. This is the case for antidepressants.

When you start taking a new medicine, ask your health professional:

  • How quickly will the medicine start working?
  • How will I know it is working?
  • When should I come back to check how well it is working?

What other treatment choices are available?

There may be other treatment choices to keep in mind. This might include:

  • non-medicine options that may help improve your condition. This may be physiotherapy, counselling, surgery, vitamins or other supplements
  • other medicines, with different ways of working or different side effects.

Lifestyle changes, such as changes to your activity levels, sleep, weight or diet, are other treatment choices. Positive lifestyle changes are often part of an overall management plan. This can be giving up smoking, or getting more exercise. The plan could also include taking medicines or using other treatments.

Some people can lower their blood pressure with routine physical activity and a healthy diet. This way, they don't need to start blood pressure medicine. They can delay needing medicine for a while.

Losing weight or being physically active can also:

  • prevent or delay the onset of diabetes
  • lower the risk of heart disease
  • lower pain in osteoarthritis
  • help improve mood.

Find out more about lifestyle choices for better health.

How do I take the medicine and for how long?

Medicines can come in many forms. This can be tablets, powders, liquids, patches, injections, inhalations, creams, oils and suppositories.

It doesn’t matter what type of medicine you are taking. It is important that you take it only as directed by your doctor. Taking it incorrectly could mean you end up with too little or too much of the medicine in your body. If this happens, you don't get the full benefit. You are also at greater risk of side effects and other problems.

Make sure your health professional gives you clear written instructions on how you need to take your medicine. You can ask:

  • How do I take the medicine?
  • When should I take it?
  • Are there any special instructions about food or drink while I am taking the medicine?
  • How long do I need to take it for?

You may be concerned that you will find it hard to take the medicine as prescribed. Discuss this with your health professional.

Learn more about how to manage your medicines

How much will it cost? 

The government subsidises most prescription medicines in Australia under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). For medicines listed on the PBS the patient pays a reduced amount (co-payment). The federal government pays what remains of the total cost.

The PBS may not subsidise a medicine for your condition. You will have to pay the full price for it in this case. This is often between $10 and $100 per prescription. In some cases it can cost hundreds of dollars.

The cost of the medicine may be a problem for you. Ask your health professional. They can tell you if there are more affordable choices.

Find out more about keeping your medicine costs down.