Pills.Most prescribing psychiatrists I know are well aware of drug interactions and other side-effects from prescription psychiatric medication.

But not all doctors (and patients) are as aware as they should be.

Although this recent study is concerned with family doctors, it is an important reminder that doctors, nurses, and patients need to educate themselves about the possible dangers of specific medications.

The University of British Columbia article states:

The study, which had doctors fill out questionnaires about each promoted medicine following sales visits, was published online today in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. It shows that sales representatives failed to provide any information about common or serious side effects and the type of patients who should not use the medicine in 59 per cent of the promotions. In Vancouver and Montreal, no potential harms were mentioned for 66 per cent of promoted medicines.

“Laws in all three countries require sales representatives to provide information on harm as well as benefits,” says lead author Barbara Mintzes of the University of British Columbia. “But no one is monitoring these visits and there are next to no sanctions for misleading or inaccurate promotion.”

Serious risks were mentioned in only six percent of the promotions, even though 57 per cent of the medications involved in these visits came with US Food and Drug Administration “black box” or Health Canada boxed warnings – the strongest drug warning that can be issued by both countries.

If you are taking any medication, whether it be psychiatric or not, it’s a good idea to read (or reread) the “fine print”, even if you’ve been taking the medication for years.

Often new studies are done on older drugs. These may identify previously undiscovered risks. And doctors are sometimes the last to know.

To be fair, keeping up with the news on potentially hundreds of medications is challenging, if not impossible, for the average doctor who usually doesn’t have a research team at his or her disposal. This is where you come in. You (or an advocate you trust) should pay attention to your own symptoms and keep yourself informed about the medications you are taking.

In some cases, you and your doctor, both, have read the fine print. But it’s easy to forget that a symptom, such as a skin or digestive problem, might be caused by the medication. Sometimes, you can safely take a medicine for several months or even years, and only then develop an intolerance.

Read the labels. Ask questions. And don’t ever hesitate to ask for more information.