Survey Shows Risks of Borrowed Medicine

One-Fourth of People Who Borrow Prescription Medicine Report Side Effects

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on November 11, 2009
From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 11, 2009 -- Everyone knows borrowing prescription medicines from family or friends isn't wise, yet the practice is common. But about one in four who take a borrowed prescription medicine will have a side effect, according to new research.

"We'd seen in preliminary studies that one in five people were sharing," says researcher Rick Goldsworthy, PhD, director of research and development at Academic Edge in Bloomington, Ind., an educational research firm.

He found the same in his current survey, with 594 of the 2,773 respondents, ages 12-45, or about one of five, admitting to sharing medicines.

The number who experienced side effects, however, is new, Goldsworthy says. ''The side effect number surprises me and concerns me as well."

Goldsworthy presented the research today at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association in Philadelphia.

Goldsworthy and his colleague, Christopher B. Mayhorn, PhD, a researcher at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, conducted the survey in 11 public locations in May and June 2008. Most surveys were done in urban areas. Locations included Atlanta; Cleveland; Dallas; Greeneville, S.C.; Miami; Los Angeles; Philadelphia; Phoenix; South Bend, Ind.; Tacoma, Wash; and Lexington, Ky.

Of the one in five who admitted borrowing prescription medicines, 54.6% didn't get written information and 38.2% didn't get verbal warnings or instructions about the medicine.

As to why they borrowed, 77.3% said they did it to avoid having to visit a health care provider. But in the long run, one of three said they had to go to a health care provider anyway to resolve their health problem.

And 205 survey respondents said they didn't tell their doctor or other health care provider about taking the borrowed medicines.

Goldsworthy doesn't have information on the severity of the side effects reported by survey respondents.

Borrowing Prescription Medicines: What's in Demand?

Who borrowed what? Here are the top six borrowed prescription medicines, with the percent who named that drug as one they had ever borrowed:

Goldsworthy calls the loaning and borrowing of prescription medicines among family and friends "altruistic borrowing" because the intent is good. Someone may have run out of their prescribed medicine, or they may seem to have the same symptoms as someone else.

He suspects that the respondents may have fudged the answers a bit. "In our study there is probably a slight under-reporting of the rates of borrowing." There is probably over-reporting, he says, of those who claimed to have told their provider about sharing medicines.

As to why they borrowed medicines instead of going to the doctor, Goldsworthy suspects it is more of a time issue than a money issue.

''This study simply reaffirms that people are sharing these medications and aren't terribly worried about this, but should be," Goldsworthy tells WebMD.

''They should consider this as a behavior that could cause problems," he says, with harm ranging from incorrectly diagnosing yourself to developing antibiotic resistance later.

"Prescriptions are provided to specific people for a specific purpose at a specific dose over a specific course of treatment," he says." If you mess with any of those things you are not being correctly treated for whatever your malady is, even if you manage to diagnose yourself correctly."

The research puts some specific numbers to a problem that is widely known, says Georges Benjamin, MD, executive director of the American Public Health Association, who is familiar with the new study and is a former practicing emergency physician.

''For me, the surprise was the high percent of people who report side effects," he tells WebMD. "It's not surprising they are there, but 25% is a big amount."

Of medication borrowers, Benjamin says: "I don't think they realize the risk involved. People need to know the risk involved. You may not know the dose you are getting. You don't know how old the medicine is."

Show Sources


Georges Benjamin, MD, executive director, American Public Health Association.

American Public Health Association annual meeting, Philadelphia, Nov. 7-11, 2009.

Rick Goldsworthy, PhD, director of research and development, Academic Edge, Bloomington, Ind.

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