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When Side Effects Get in the Way

Wednesday, June 14, 2017
By Geri Lynn Baumblatt & Mia DeFino
Mia DeFino

Patients, clinicians, and healthcare organizations all want people to feel better so they can live their lives to the fullest. Unfortunately, the side effects of treatment can get in the way.
 
Mia’s Story: 5 meds, lots of side Effects
When first diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) Mia’s physiatrist prescribed five medications. Not surprisingly, it was confusing which medication was supposed to help with what symptoms. By the time Mia came back the following week she was more miserable: agitated and unable to sleep, she had a rash on her face, and was sick to her stomach.
 
Turns out, she was sensitive to a lot of medications. Although she wanted to be a “good” patient, she couldn’t keep taking the meds. But her doctor was hesitant to make any changes and didn’t offer alternatives. Mia left feeling scared, frustrated and like the side effects she experienced weren’t being taken seriously.
 
Fast forward 3 years:
Mia was diagnosed with chronic migraines. She got relief from medication, yet it also made her dizzy, nauseous, and tired. This time the side effects conversation was different. Her neurologist worked with her through many rounds of medications and figured out if she took them as needed just on really bad days it helped her avoid the side effects, while still providing pain relief.
 
Geri’s story: More than a nuisance
As a family caregiver, Geri had a similar experience when medications her dad was on in the last years of his life caused his skin to thin and itch.The itching drove him crazy and kept him and those taking care of him from getting decent sleep. As a family caregiver, it was frightening to scratch his back, hoping to give him relief but not tear his fragile skin. When the family brought up the itching with his team, it was discussed as more of a nuisance -- the cost of treating his conditions.
 
Side effects are challenging, especially when patients take more than one medication. But even with a single medication one study that looked at statin side effects, found that 87% of patients reported telling their physician about side effects, and unfortunately physicians often rejected a possible connection to the medication. What would you do? Keep taking the medication ...or become “non-adherent”?
 
Changing the Conversation
It doesn’t take much to change the tone of the conversation and affirm a symptom may be due to a medication and that it’s a real issue. Even when complaints don’t fit into documented side effects, if we want people to engage in their plan of care, working this out can make all the difference to their peace of mind, quality of life (QOL), and participation. Letting people know you’ll work with them to find the right treatment where their QOL is improved builds trust.
 
Patients can also report side effects to the FDA on MedWatch. This can also help people know they’re contributing to a better understanding of side effects for everyone.
 
People want to feel better and it’s hard when treatment makes them feel worse or causes a new problem. People don’t like to challenge their care team or seem like complainers, so by the time they tell you about a side effect, it’s probably really bothering them.

Mia’s story: another 3 years later
Mia found that changes to her diet and lifestyle could help minimize the number of medications she needs to take. At Mia’s first appointment with her new primary care physician, one of the first things they talked about very directly is: Side effects. As Mia explains: I shouldn’t have to experience more symptoms to feel “better.”

Mia DeFino, M.S. Mia has personal experience with chronic diseases and managing her health with multiple healthcare providers, recognizing the need for translating complex ideas in medicine and healthcare for multiple audiences. She supports people dealing with complex chronic diseases through finding physicians and resources in their area. She’s an independent medical and science writer in Chicago www.miadefino.com. @mia_defino

Tags: communication, personal healthcare, family caregiver, empathy, pain management, patient education, experience, healthcare
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