Doctor’s orders

IMG_2991A doctor’s prescription is known in France as une ordonnance médicale. The name says a lot about how the French view their prescriptions. Surely if a doctor orders you to take something, take it you must?

My late Belle-mère was a regular at the doctor’s office and could never recover from even a minor head cold without a prescription. Like many French people she did not believe in generic medicines – she considered them cheap imitations and insisted the doctor prescribe the original brand. I tried to convince her they were exactly the same molecule but she turned a deaf ear to my science-based arguments.

Pharmacist's assistant

Me in my Shoppers’ Drug Mart uniform

I used to be a pharmacist’s assistant at a drug store in Canada many years ago, a part-time job that paid for my education while also providing one of its own. I learned that people need to be given clear directions for taking their medication. That certain drugs were best taken with food or on an empty stomach, and that finishing a complete course of antibiotics was essential in order for them to be effective.

I also learned how NOT to pronounce the name ‘Cockburn’ when calling out one man’s prescription over the PA system.

When filling a prescription in North America, the pharmacist takes a massive jar of pills and counts out the prescribed number into a smaller vial, then sticks on a custom label with the patient’s name, the name of the drug, when and how to take it. This system allows the patient to receive the exact number of pills needed and to see at a glance how to take them. You could argue that it leaves room for human error, mislabeling, etc. But no prescription medicine ever left the store without a pharmacist personally checking it against the doctor’s prescription. Always assuming we could decipher the handwriting…we also made a lot of calls to doctors’ offices to double check.

Nothing so simple in France. Tablets come in a prepackaged box of blister packs along with la notice or patient package insert. This document is in accordance with strict regulatory rules that require the drug maker to disclose a lot of information, even for relatively innocuous over-the-counter drugs.

In order to find out how to take your medicine, you have to remove the insert, unfold it, and read through chapter and verse until you get to the relevant section. How much to take (posologie) and how and when to take it (comment prendre ce médicament?)

Your French had better be pretty good in order to glean the information you need from the language contained on the insert, which includes specifics for children of all ages, pregnant and nursing mothers and people with all kinds of pre-existing medical conditions. You also need good eyes or strong glasses to read the tiny print.

One thing that always mystified me was the French obsession with suppositories. I thought this mode of administration had gone out with hot water bottles but they are quite popular for certain ailments, especially for children. I remember having to give my kids suppositories for ear infections. Which not only seems bizarre but is a pretty hard sell for your child once they get old enough to argue.

The French love their system and will hear no criticism of it. They argue that factory-sealed blister-packs of pills are safer and more hygienic, and the details contained on the insert are helpful in case of any potential side effects.

But too much information can be a dangerous thing. Super paranoid patient, I read the whole insert in detail before taking the first pill or administering it to my children. After considering the pros and cons of the treatments vs. serious adverse events like renal failure, allergic reactions or plain old constipation, I ask myself if it’s really worth it just to avoid a little pain? Half the time I don’t end up filling the prescription, or when I do it sits unopened in its package. And most of the time (knock, knock, knock on wood), I am just fine.

Famous last (first) words: Never begin a post like I did last week: “I am blessed with good health….” It is only asking for trouble. Tuesday morning found me doubled over in pain as I slipped a disc just after saying ‘Namaste’ at the end of yoga class. How’s that for irony, peeps?


  1. cheergerm · February 12, 2015

    I will never start a post with that phrase…glad that you have thus far survived this pharmaceutical arrangement. (Are you going to take back pain medication or use a hot water bottle? I fail to see how a suppository will assist there! 😁) Namaste. (You have just proven to me that yoga really is dangerous and my avoidance thus far is completely justified.)

    • MELewis · February 12, 2015

      Ha, ha….it’s the cleaning up that’s dangerous (should have left that yoga mat on the floor where it belonged!) No suppositories thankfully, but I am taking anti-inflammatory drugs for a few days until I can stand upright again. No mountain pose again this week though!

  2. andrewjameswriter · February 12, 2015

    Great post! I always found something charming about how old fashioned the French system is, even though I was never able to understand it. 🙂

    • MELewis · February 12, 2015

      Thankfully the quality of care is more modern than the system itself! But I’m still not sure I completely understand it 😉

  3. andrewjameswriter · February 12, 2015

    And I hope you sort your back soon. Maybe they’ll prescribe leeches…

  4. davidprosser · February 12, 2015

    Ouch, poor you. I hope you read the ‘destructions’ through properly before touching your hermetically sealed anti-flim flams. I didn’t realise yoga was designated a dangerous sport before, I on’t think I’ll be doing it.
    Namaste dear MEL.
    xxx Hugs Galore xxx

    • MELewis · February 12, 2015

      ‘Hermetically sealed’ about describes it…almost ripped my finger off trying to open some of those babies! And I’ll definitely think twice before I next do downward dog. Bises xx

  5. Osyth · February 12, 2015

    Yoga and I are not friends and your post has convinced me that I am correct. Great post as usual but I hope sitting typing it was not too painful … I’ve slipped discs 3 times in my life and the worst of it was that I couldn’t move and I couldn’t stay still. Agonising. Get better soon 🙂

    • MELewis · February 12, 2015

      The only comfortable position yesterday was lying down, and thankfully my laptop likes that position too… Today is already looking up as I’m able to sit more comfortably. As for yoga, mostly it is my friend but I think the prof pushed me a bit too far with the hip openings…well intentioned but overly ambitious for my anatomy! Merci for your well wishes.

  6. Kat · February 12, 2015

    Oh dear, pls take care and get well soon. I was giggling to myself when I read suppositories and ear infections!

    • MELewis · February 12, 2015

      It is a strange route for a suppository! 😉 Glad you enjoyed and thanks for the well wishes!

  7. Britt · February 12, 2015

    Love you in your Shoppers Drug Mart uniform. Looks like you had feathered hair that was the envy of all the gals! This was a fun read (hope your back is behaving again). xoxo

    • MELewis · February 13, 2015

      Oh yeah, those Farrah Fawcett wings! Dug that one out of a memory box….so pleased to have readers who remember those days. And the back is on the mend, thanks to the meds and your wishes!

  8. peakperspective · February 15, 2015

    Oh, you poor girl! I hope you’re recovering somewhat from the wretched back pain. It’s so unfair that it happened as you were trying to do something to maintain health as well, isn’t it? How cruel fate can be.
    And you’ve pointed out something that I’ve always taken for granted in America – the drug dispensation methods. Yes, I agree, there seems to be a large margin of error available to pharmacists. Good heavens, I’m so curious as to why this hasn’t been addressed with a little more fervor.
    I wish you better, Mel. Be well.

    • MELewis · February 19, 2015

      Walking almost normally now….many thanks for your kind wishes! As for the way drugs are dispensed in North America, I suppose the margin of error will always exist where there is a human factor. Even doctors can prescribe the wrong pills for what ails you so I suppose it’s best to be sure and read the fine print. And thank god for the internet!

  9. Pingback: La crève | FranceSays

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