I often hear patients asking, “Why am I taking this medication?”  Whether it is a medication prescribed by a primary care physician, specialist, or emergency medicine provider, this question needs to be answered and understood by all patients. Prescription labels for medications taken as-needed typically include the indication for use, but prescriptions for chronic illnesses typically do not. This information is especially important when patients are on multiple medications. The issue comes down to health literacy.

Studies have shown that more than 75% of patients lack understanding about prescription label instructions, and some patients stop taking medications if they don’t know what it is prescribed for.1 This lack of information is a source of frustration for patients, their caretakers/families, and their providers. Many older patients in my practice ask me about their medications. After explaining the indication for each medication, I write the reason for the prescription on the bottle with a marker if they have their medicine with them or I indicate the information on their paperwork. The simple act of writing down the purpose for the medication helps patients understand why the agent is important to their heath and serves as a reminder over time.  

Misunderstanding the “why” may affect patient’s willingness to take needed medications. Medication nonadherence affects quality of life and leads to more than $100 billion in avoidable hospitalizations.2 Not knowing the “why” can lead to chronic illness exacerbations causing multiple office/emergency department visits or hospitalizations as well as increased time spent by office staff and/or pharmacy staff to address patient questions. To help reduce this burden, the Institute of Medicine encourages the standardization of prescription use instructions given that the medication label is a key source of information for patients.3 This practice can save time, confusion, and money for patients, families, providers, pharmacists, hospitals, and insurance companies.

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Nurse practitioners (NP) can lead this transformation in their practice. Awareness that patients need information on the purpose of their medications is necessary for change to begin. After discussing this need with patients, colleagues, and support staff, the indication for use of each medication can be written on prescriptions for all patients. This act will serve as a reminder of the “why” and will help patients take control of their health care.

Karen A. Bocchicchio MSN, FNP-C, APN-C, is a practicing clinician as well as lead clinician at a Penn Medicine primary care office in New Jersey. She is a clinical nursing adjunct for nurse practitioner students at Rowan University. She is also pursuing her DNP at Rutgers University.


1. Davis TC, Federman AD, Bass PF 3rd, et al. Improving patient understanding of prescription drug label instructions. J Gen Intern Med. 2009;24(1):57-62. doi:10.1007/s11606-008-0833-4

2. Cutler DM, Everett W. Thinking outside the pillbox–medication adherence as a priority for health care reform. N Engl J Med. 2010;362(17):1553-1555. doi:10.1056/NEJMp1002305

3. Institute of Medicine. Standardizing Medication Labels: Confusing Patients Less: Workshop Summary. The National Academies Press; 2008. https://doi.org/10.17226/12077.