Researchers from the University of California Los Angeles School of Medicine examined surveys of patients and doctors and analyzed audiotaped outpatient visits with 44 physicians in 1999. The taped interviews were checked for five instructions from the doctors: the name of the drug, the reason for taking it, length of use, side effects and the frequency of use.
The researchers -- led by Dr. Derjung Tarn -- found that in the taped visits, doctors explained an average of 3.1 out of the five instructions. The name of the drug was explained 74 percent of the time and the purpose was given 87 percent of the time, but side effects were only explained 35 percent of the time.
Including the results of the patient surveys, the researchers found that physicians gave full medication dosing instructions for fewer than 60 percent of prescribed medications, and informed patients of side effects and how long to take a drug about one-third of the time.
"This study demonstrates spotty physician counseling about new medication prescriptions," says Tarn. "Although physicians educated patients more about psychiatric and analgesic (painkiller) medications, the overall quality of communication was poor even for these medication types and could contribute to patient misunderstandings about how and why to take their new medication."
The researchers also found that drug explanations were particularly poor for over-the-counter medications. Information on side effects was given less than 15 percent of the time for antibiotics and skin medications.
The UCLA study's authors noted that patients frequently obtain medication information from pharmacists, nurses and drug package inserts, rather than from doctors. The researchers say more research is needed to determine whether or not doctors spending more time to educate patients on proper medication use and risks would result in more appropriate use of prescriptions.