Our March 2017 Consumer Survey on Medication Safety revealed that:

  • 54% don’t check their medications to make sure they’re not counterfeit.
  • 35% have been confused by the instructions for taking a medication.
  • 29% of those who were confused by instructions did not get clarification from doctor/pharmacist before taking the medication.
  • 34% have had difficulty cutting a pill/tablet into a smaller size.
  • 31% have taken a prescription medication that was not prescribed for them.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration, “Tens of millions of people in the United States depend on prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications to sustain their health—as many as 3 billion prescriptions are written annually.” Every OTC and prescription medication has the potential for side effects and adverse reactions.

Consumers are concerned about counterfeit medications, tripped up by confusing instructions, and frustrated by small print on pharmaceutical labels. For these and many other reasons, according to our March 2017 survey, consumers struggle to use medications properly and safely.

Dismissing Warnings of Counterfeit Drugs

Counterfeit drugs are a very real problem in both U.S. pharmacies and hospitals. In 2014, federal agents seized nearly $73 million in counterfeit drugs. Furthermore, individuals who receive a counterfeit drug may be at risk for a number of dangerous health consequences. 46% of survey respondents have gotten the message—they do check their medications to make sure they’re not counterfeit.

54% don’t check to determine if their medication is authentic. Consumers should always check the label, packaging and appearance of the medication. Some prescription labels include a picture or description of the actual tablet or capsule—it’s a good idea to open the bottle right away to make sure what’s in it matches what the label says. The FDA advises consumers to “be vigilant when examining their personal medications, paying attention to the presence of altered or unsealed containers or changes in the packaging of the product, differences in the physical appearance of the product, taste, and unexpected side effects experienced.”

Misplaced Trust

Of those who don’t check to make sure they haven’t received counterfeit medication, 76% say they don’t check because they get their prescriptions from a pharmacy that they trust.

It is true that purchasing prescription medications from state-licensed pharmacies in the U.S. is safer than buying them on online or outside of the U.S., but consumers should pay attention to this fact: many pharmacies in the United States have at one time or another unintentionally sold counterfeit medication.

Most people who use counterfeit or compromised medications “never find out about it If they have an adverse reaction, or don’t get well, they rarely imagine a counterfeit drug may have been the cause.” No doubt, the problem is of counterfeit drugs in the U.S. is woefully underreported.

Playing a Guessing Game

35% of our survey respondents admit that they’ve been confused by the instructions for taking a medication.

Pharmaceutical labels can be very confusing. A Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine study found that “doctors had 53 different ways to write ‘Take one tablet twice daily.'” Prescription medication instructions are “unnecessarily complicated” said Michael Wolf, professor of medicine at Northwestern University. It doesn’t help matters that the size of the printed instructions on prescription pharmaceutical labels is often very small.

When confused by a pharmaceutical label, 60% did the right thing and called the doctor or pharmacist. 29% say they took the medication even though they weren’t sure they were taking it correctly.

Essentially, the 29% tried to make sense of the instructions on the pharmaceutical label and hoped that they got it right. That’s a problem. Taking a medication incorrectly can interfere with the drug’s ability to treat many diseases, leading to greater complications from the illness and a lower quality of life for patients. Some prescription drugs can become addictive when taken in a manner or dosage other than prescribed. If you are not 100% sure of how to take the medication, call the doctor or pharmacist.

A Half Dose, More or Less

34% of our survey respondents say they’ve had difficulty cutting a pill into a small size. Tragically, 20% of Americans who take prescription drugs report that they or a family member have cut prescription drugs in half or skipped doses because the drugs are so expensive.

According to WebMD, “Even if your doctor or pharmacist says your pills are safe to split, there can be problems, including the possibility of an uneven dose. For some drugs, the dose has to be so accurate even a small difference in two halves of a split pill could put your health at risk.” Many pills are not suited for splitting and should never be cut in half or into a smaller size.

Taking Something That’s Not Yours

31% of survey respondents say they’ve taken a prescription drug that was not prescribed for them.

In some cases, this type of behavior is drug “abuse” (intending to get high) but in other cases, it’s defined as “misuse” (not following medical instructions). Either way, taking a drug other than the way it is prescribed can lead to dangerous outcomes—for example, a person can die from respiratory depression from misusing or abusing prescription painkillers, and prescription stimulants such as medications for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can lead to dangerous increases in blood pressure. Even antibiotics can cause debilitating side effects. Doctors write prescriptions based on a number of factors, including patient’s medical history, age, weight and allergies. Prescription drugs  are not one size fits all.


In the U.S., the FDA oversees a “strict regulatory framework that governs the production of drug products and the distribution chain.” Even so, there are risks associated with taking any medication. Consumers need to heed the risks, read pharmaceutical labels, follow directions and when in doubt, ask a health care provider or pharmacist for help.