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Deciphering Your Prescription

Posted Feb 3rd, 2009 by Trisha Torrey

A prescription is an order provided by a doctor so that someone else, usually a pharmacist, can provide us with a drug or device to improve our health.

But note – that someone else isn’t us patients!  Prescriptions, whether they are handwritten or printed from a computer (called e-prescribing) are full of shorthand and acronyms that make it difficult for us to figure out what they mean.

That confusing mishmash of letters and names is one reason there are so many mistakes made when filling prescriptions. Because unwary patients have gotten sicker and died from prescription errors, it only makes sense for us to have a good idea of what all those letters mean.

Here are some guidelines for understanding written prescriptions:

Start at your doctor’s office.  If the prescription isn’t correct there, then it certainly won’t be correct anywhere else along the dispensing line.

Any prescription handed to you should note the following:

·        - your name and address

·         -the current date

·         -your birth date (to be sure the pharmacist doesn’t confuse your prescription with those belonging to someone who has a similar name to yours)

·         -the name of the drug

·         -the dosage strength and form (for example, tablets, capsules, liquid)

·         -the amount to be dispensed

·         -directions for taking or applying the drug

·         -the number of refills

·         -plus the doctor’s identification information.

If any of that information is missing, ask your doctor to fill it in.

In addition to making sure all the information is filled in, review the information that is there to be sure it has been prescribed correctly.  (And, aside from being correct, you may also want to ask if there are other drugs that are in the same class – that’s a money saving measure.)

On the written prescription itself, you may find abbreviations that are unfamiliar. Some are acronyms (just the first letter of each word in a phrase) and some are Latin or Greek, or abbreviations of Latin or Greek. 

Here are a few of them:

·  b.i.d., from the Latin bis in die, means the drug should be taken twice a day

·  t.i.d. also comes from the Latin ter in die, means take the drug three times a day

·  a.c., from the Latin ante cibum, means to take the drug before a meal

·  p.c. from post cibum, means to take the drug after a meal

·  d-a-w is an English acronym and means "dispense as written" which is an instruction to the pharmacist not to substitute a generic drug

·  Here is a master list of prescription abbreviations

To punctuate the confusion with all the abbreviations on a prescription, the Joint Commission, the body that accredits hospitals, has developed a list of abbreviations that are no longer to be used by anyone who writes prescriptions, because they were too easily confused.

When you pick up your prescription at the pharmacy, plan to review it once again, this time with your pharmacist, to be sure the prescription was accurately dispensed. If you have further questions, your pharmacist may be able to answer them. If not, get back in touch with your doctor’s office for clarification.

Wise patients know to review the details of any orders the doctor gives them. Knowing the basics of a written prescription can help us better understand how it will help us, what effects we can expect from taking the drug, and what we need to do to comply with the doctor’s orders.

Learn more about reading prescriptions from the FDA.


About the author

Trisha Torrey is Every Patient's Advocate. She is a newspaper columnist, radio talk show host, national speaker, and the guide to patient empowerment at

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