Making wise choices about medicines

Do you know what to consider when making choices about medicines and talking with your doctor? Read more about how to weigh up the pros and cons of taking a medicine and how to work with your health professional to make the right decisions for you.


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

There can be a lot of information to absorb when faced with the possibility of taking a new medicine.

  • Take your time. In many cases you won't have to make a decision immediately, so ask your health professional whether you have time to think things over. If you are not sure what to do, arrange to come back in a few days when you've done some research. You may wish to discuss the options with a trusted person eg, another health professional, a family member or carer.
  • Take notes when talking to your health professional. If you need help taking notes, 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 options. Once you have information about the benefits and risks of your treatment options, think about how they compare and which option is best for you.

Five steps to be medicinewise

  1. Ask questions to get the information you need about medicines and make better informed decisions. Some questions you can ask are listed in the next section.
  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, as well as herbal remedies, bush medicines, vitamins and other supplements. 
  3. Know the active ingredient. Active ingredients are what make your medicines work. The active ingredient should always be written before the brand name on a medicine prescription. That way, if your pharmacist offers you an alternative brand of a prescription medicine you can be sure it will work the same way as your usual medicine. 
    Learn more about the active ingredient and where to find it.
  4. Always follow instructions from your doctor or pharmacist and read the labels and packaging of your medicines carefully. For more detailed information, read the consumer medicine information (CMI) which is available for prescription and pharmacist-only medicines, and some over-the-counter medicines – ask your pharmacist or 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, especially on visits to your health clinic, doctor or pharmacist, or to hospital.

Remember, always talk over any decisions about medicines with your health professional.

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 relating to food or drink?
  • Do I need to avoid taking other medicines with 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?

Possible side effects of the medicine:

  • What common side effects should I be aware of?
  • Are there any serious side effects, and how likely are they?
  • What can I do to reduce the risk of side effects?
  • What should I do if I experience 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 be helpful to have a support person with you when you talk to the doctor. That way, any information 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 or medication can work in different ways. It might:

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

Different medicines can help different aspects of your illness. For example, if you were having an asthma attack you would use a short-acting inhaled medicine (a reliever) to open up your airways and quickly help your breathing. However, this won’t make future asthma attacks any milder or less frequent – you would need to take regular doses of another medicine to reduce inflammation in your airways (a preventer) to do that.

Ask what benefits you can expect from taking the medicine and consider how important these benefits are to you. Different things are important to different people. When you talk to your health professional, explain which benefits are important to you – or what aspects of your illness trouble you the most. Then you can find out if the medicine can help, or whether there is another reason for taking it.

For example, many people with high blood pressure do not notice any symptoms. Controlling their blood pressure 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 reduce the risk of a stroke can help them make a decision.

What side effects should I be aware of?

All medicines can have side effects, though not everybody will experience them. You should find out about:

  • common side effects – the (usually) less serious side effects that you are more likely to experience
  • serious side effects – which are often less likely, but may have a greater impact if they do occur.

Side effects of a medicine always need to be weighed up against the likely benefits. You should also be aware of the possibility of interactions between different medicines.

For information on common side effects, read the consumer medicine information (CMI) which is available for prescription and pharmacist-only medicines – ask your pharmacist or use our Medicine Finder to search for the CMI for your medicine.

For more serious side effects, you will need to speak to your health professional.

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. 

However, other conditions will get worse and may cause irreversible damage if you don't take medicine to treat them. 

Talk to your doctor so that you understand 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 have an almost immediate effect. Others, such as antidepressants, can take 2–3 weeks or longer to make a noticeable difference.

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 review how well it is working?

What other treatment options are available?

There may be other treatment options to consider. This might include 

  • non-medicine approaches, such as physiotherapy, counselling, surgery, vitamins or other supplements that may help improve your condition
  • other medicines, with different modes of action or side effects.

Lifestyle changes, such as changes to your activity levels, sleep, weight or diet, are other treatment options. In face, positive lifestyle changes, such as giving up smoking, or getting more exercise, are often part of an overall management plan that could also include taking medicines or using other treatments.

Some people can lower their blood pressure with regular physical activity and a healthy diet, so that they don't need to start blood pressure medicine, or they can delay needing medicine for a while. 

Losing weight or being physically active can also prevent or delay the onset of diabetes, reduce the risk of heart disease, reduce pain in osteoarthritis and 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 such as tablets, powders, liquids, patches, injections, inhalations, creams, oils and suppositories. 

Some can be taken once a day, some must be taken four times a day, and some are slow release so they may only need to be taken monthly.

Some are one-off treatments, others are a month's course, and some are prescribed on an ongoing basis. Some medicines you might need to take for the rest of your life. 

Whatever the type of medicine, it is important that you take it only as directed. 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, or you are at greater risk of side effects and other problems.

Make sure your health professional provides clear written instructions on how you need to take your medicine. If you are concerned that you will find it difficult to take the medicine as prescribed, discuss this with your health professional.

You can find information about your medicine, including the consumer medicine information (CMI), through the NPS Medicine Finder. Talk it over with your health professional if you have any questions about it.

Learn more about managing your medicines

How much will it cost? 

Most prescription medicines in Australia are subsidised by the Government under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). For medicines listed on the PBS the patient pays a reduced amount (co-payment), and the federal government pays the remainder of the total cost.

The Safety Net entitles people to free or cheaper medicines if they spend more than a certain amount on PBS (prescription) medicines in a calendar year. If you were paying the general rate, your payments will be reduced to the concessional rate once you reach the Safety Net threshold. If you were paying the concessional rate, PBS medicines will be free for the rest of the year.

These thresholds apply to family units and are the same regardless of whether the unit consists of one person, a couple, or a family with dependent children.

The size of patient co-payments for PBS-subsidised medicines, and the Safety Net thresholds, can change, but you can find the current values on the PBS website under What are the current patient fees and charges?.

If a medicine is not listed in the PBS for your condition, you will have to pay the full price for it. This will usually be between $10 and $100 per prescription, but in some cases it can cost hundreds of dollars.

If the cost of the medicine is a problem for you, ask your health professional if there are more affordable options.

Find out more about keeping your medicine costs down.