Skip to Content

Risks vs. Benefits of Medications

Medically reviewed by Leigh Ann Anderson, PharmD. Last updated on Feb 10, 2020.

Pros and Cons of Prescription Medicine

If the FDA considers a medication safe enough to approve, that means its benefits outweigh its known risks. The medications you take play an important role in your overall health. However, all medications have side effects, warnings and drug interactions, so it's important to understand your treatments, expected results, and alternative medical options.1

  • The benefits of medicines are the helpful effects you get, such as easing pain, controlling blood sugar, lowering blood pressure, or curing an infection.
  • The risks of medicines are the possible unwanted or unexpected effects that might happen to you when you use them. Risks can be minor, like a mild upset stomach, or more serious, such as an increased risk of bleeding or liver damage.

What if you have questions?

You may have questions or feel concerned about the medication or treatment plan your doctor has prescribed. It is important for you to ask questions and learn as much as possible about your condition.

You'll want to know about:

  • your full treatment plan
  • medications, tests, or other therapies
  • the timeline of your treatment (short-term or long-term)
  • your expected outcomes (a cure, control of a chronic disease, or palliative care)

Asking questions and learning about the risks versus benefits of medications can help you become a fully informed participant in your own health care plan. You should provide information to your healthcare provider so they can gain additional knowledge about your current medications or treatment plans. This information helps your provider to make the right choices for your health care going forward.

Here is a general outline of six actions you can take to ensure your treatment is as safe as possible and produces the expected outcome.

1. Talk to your healthcare provider

This seems so obvious, but it is very important to have face-to-face discussions with your healthcare provider. Write down your questions ahead of time, and be sure to take them with you to your appointment. Consider taking a trusted friend or family member to help make notes about the your discussion.

Things you might consider talking with your healthcare provider about include:

  • your allergies to medications or foods
  • your current medications, including vitamins, over-the-counter drugs, and dietary or herbal supplements
  • your current and past medical history, including any pertinent family history and success or failure you have had with other medications
  • if there are any drug interactions with your prescribed medications, including over-the-counter or herbal supplements
  • possible side effects of your treatments
  • how to start and stop any medication
  • a frank discussion of medications costs and your ability to pay for medications

If you feel your appointment may not offer enough time for discussion, call your healthcare provider’s office and schedule additional time. Ask questions not only of your doctor, but also of your pharmacist, nurse, dentist, physical therapist, or other healthcare professional that you see.

Related: Top 10 Ways to Save Money on Your Medication Costs

2. Write down important information

Write down the information you discuss with your healthcare provider. It is easy to forget details, which may be complicated. You may need to share this information with family members, caregivers, or other healthcare providers. You can ask these questions of your doctor or pharmacist.

You might consider writing down:

  • the names of your medication (both brand and generic), and be sure to include nonprescription medications, such as vitamins or over-the-counter drugs
  • the strength and dose of your medications
  • how often and when you take the medication
  • special food or beverage restrictions
  • important drug interactions
  • possible side effects and what to do if one should occur

3. Read reliable patient advice in plain language

There is a lot of false and misleading health information on the Internet. Plus, medical information written for healthcare professionals can often be complicated. Be sure to use reliable sources of online information that are developed by healthcare professionals, written for patients and that come from trustworthy medical institutions.

  • For example, professionally developed medication and disease information written in plain English for patients can be accessed from your pharmacist.
  • Many drugs come with Medication Guides. These are paper handouts that address issues that are specific to particular drugs and drug classes. Medication guides contain FDA-approved information that can help patients avoid serious side effects.
  • Every patient’s circumstance is unique, be sure to always double check medical information with your healthcare provider.

4. Follow your doctor's advice

Joining an online chat group can be a reassuring and comforting method of communicating with others who may have your same condition or have similar questions. However, what may apply to another person’s situation may not apply to yours.

  • If you read medical or drug treatment advice on the Internet, be sure to discuss it with your healthcare provider prior to taking action to confirm the information is safe and correct.
  • Never share personal health information, such as your insurance identifications numbers, social security number or other private health information that may put you or your family at risk for fraud or identity theft.
  • Purchasing medication online can be risky and dangerous, and it is best to avoid this practice unless medications are sent directly from a confirmed and reputable U.S. pharmacy.

5. Consider your options

How critical is the medication to your treatment plan? How serious are the side effects? What would happen if you did not use the treatment? Ask your healthcare provider to discuss your different treatment options and the pros and cons of each option.

  • For example, if you are receiving a medication that has only minor side effects, and you are using the medication only for a short period of time, the side effects will be temporary.
    • An example of this is the occurrence of upset stomach, mild diarrhea or softened stools while taking an antibiotic treatment for an infection. Once the antibiotic treatment is finished, the stomach upset or loose stools will usually clear up.
  • On the other hand, if you have a cancer diagnosis and treatment is critical, you may be willing to tolerate side effects in favor of the beneficial or even life-saving effects of the medicine.
    • Even with serious side effects, such as severe nausea or vomiting that may occur with some anti-cancer treatments, your healthcare provider may have methods for minimizing these side effects.
  • Discuss your medical conditions with your provider. There may be a possibility of adverse interactions (called a drug-disease interaction) for any new medication that you may be prescribed. Consider what medical conditions you may have that would make medication side effects dangerous.
    • For example, if you have a history of stomach ulcers you should not take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) for pain as it may lead to stomach or intestinal bleeding. You may want to use an alternative pain reliever, such as acetaminophen, for pain.
    • Do you have specific drug allergies? Your doctor can choose from other alternatives.
    • Do you have diabetes, depression or seizure disorders? Many different types of medical conditions can make certain medications more risky, so be sure to tell your doctor about your full medical history.

6. Can you afford the prescribed medication?

It is important to discuss cost issues with your healthcare provider. Do not feel embarrassed or ashamed if you cannot afford your medication. Healthcare is expensive, and there are many people who do not have adequate health insurance or funds to cover their medications costs. In the U.S., the price of medical care and medications is some of the highest in the world.

  • Your healthcare provider may be able to direct you to special programs, social workers, or manufacturer, coupon or assistance programs that can help you afford your medication.
  • Be sure to tell your healthcare provider that you prefer generic medications over brand names. Generic medicines usually are much more affordable than the brand.
  • If you find that you must skip medications partially or completely due to costs, do not hesitate to talk to your doctor or pharmacist who may be able to offer alternatives.

What if you still have questions?

You still may have questions or feel concerned about the medication or treatment plan your doctor has prescribed. It is important for you to ask questions and learn as much as possible about your condition.

You'll want to know about:

  • your full treatment plan
  • medications, tests, or other therapies
  • the timeline of your treatment (short-term or long-term)
    your expected outcomes (a cure, control of a chronic disease, or palliative care)

Asking questions and learning about the risks versus benefits of medications can help you become a fully informed participant in your own health care plan. You should provide information to your healthcare provider so they can gain additional knowledge about your current medications or treatment plans. The information you provide helps your provider - and you - to make the right choices for your health care going forward.

See Also

Sources

  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Think It Through: Managing the Benefits and Risks of Medicines. Accessed Feb. 13, 2020 at https://www.fda.gov/drugs/drug-information-consumers/think-it-through-managing-benefits-and-risks-medicines

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.