How to Understand What Your Healthcare Provider's Written (2023)

Healthcare providers use prescription abbreviations based on Latin words. These abbreviations tell your pharmacist two things:

  • Which medication to give you
  • Directions on how to use that medication

Knowing how to read medical shorthand will help you understand your prescriptions. When you know what medication you will be receiving, you will be able to ask informed questions.

How to Understand What Your Healthcare Provider's Written (1)

This article will help you learn to read your prescriptions. It will also discuss how understanding your prescriptions can help prevent medical errors.

Prevent a Prescription Medical Error

It is important to understand your prescriptions. This can make a medical error less likely.

It is possible, for example, that your pharmacist could make a mistake. If your healthcare provider's handwriting is not easy to read, you may have to wait longer for your medication. Worse, you could be given the wrong dose or the wrong directions.

Pharmacies can receive prescriptions in a few different ways. Your healthcare provider might give you a handwritten or printed prescription to take to the pharmacy yourself. Your prescription may also be faxed or electronically submitted.

Many healthcare providers' offices now use electronic prescribing. This is where your healthcare provider submits your prescription directly to the pharmacy electronically. Some states require electronic prescribing. This is particularly true if the prescription is for a controlled substance.

Controlled substances are drugs that are restricted by the government because of their potential for abuse. This includes opioids, powerful pain relievers that can be addictive.

Electronic prescriptions help prevent medical errors that can be caused by hard-to-read handwriting.

Ask to see a printout of your prescription before leaving your healthcare provider's office. Check your prescription first to make sure it is filled correctly. If you think there is an error, you can tell the pharmacist or call your healthcare provider.

If you do not understand what your prescription says, ask for help. Your healthcare provider or another healthcare provider in the office can answer your questions. This could help you detect and prevent an error.

Quick Tip

Ask your healthcare provider to include your condition on the prescription—for example, not just "take once a day," but "take once a day for high cholesterol." This can help you keep track of your medications and what each one is for.

What Your Prescription Looks Like

Handwritten prescriptions are usually written on a pre-printed paper. The paper will show your healthcare provider's name, address, and phone number.

You may also see numbers such as a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) number, which allows your healthcare provider to prescribe controlled substances. These numbers may appear on the top or bottom of the paper. (It's rare for states to allow controlled substances to be prescribed via paper prescriptions; in most cases, these prescriptions now have to be transmitted to the pharmacy electronically.)

There will also be space for your name and address, your age, the date, and the healthcare provider's signature. In the blank area, your healthcare provider will write the following directions:

  • Medication name
  • Medication dose
  • How often to take the medication
  • When to take the medication
  • How to take the medication

The prescription will also indicate how much medicine the pharmacist should give you. It will also include the number of times you can refill the prescription.

Common Medical Abbreviations

Your healthcare provider may use different abbreviations or symbols. If you do not understand them, ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist for help.

The table below includes some commonly used prescription abbreviations. You can also find an alphabetical list of abbreviations at ResourcePharm.

Medical Abbreviations
How Often to Take Your Medication
ad libfreely, as needed
bidtwice a day
prnas needed
q3hevery 3 hours
q4hevery 4 hours
qdevery day
qidfour times a day
qodevery other day
tidthree times a day
When to Take Your Medication
acbefore meals
hsat bedtime
intbetween meals
pcafter meals
How Much Medication to Take
i, ii, iii, or iiiinumber of doses (1, 2, 3, or 4)
tbsptablespoon (15 mL)
tspteaspoon (5 mL)
How to Use Your Medication
adright ear
alleft ear
c or owith
odright eye
osleft eye
ouboth eyes
poby mouth
s orøwithout
topapply topically

DAW—Dispense As Written

Medications have brand names and generic names. Your healthcare provider may use either on your prescription. For example, sertraline is the generic name for the brand Zoloft. Zoloft is a medication often prescribed to treat depression.

In many states, pharmacists can give you a generic medication even if your healthcare provider writes a prescription for the brand name version. In some cases, though, your healthcare provider may write "DAW" on your prescription. DAW stands for "dispense as written."

DAW-1 means the doctor is saying that the pharmacist must dispense the brand-name drug. DAW-2 means the patient requested the brand name drug.

Generic drugs are typically less expensive than brand name drugs. Because of this, some insurance plans will penalize you for a DAW prescription. For example, you may have to pay the cost difference between the generic and the brand name drug.

Some health plans utilize step therapy, which means they will require the patient to try the generic or lower-cost alternative first, before they'll pay for a brand-name or higher-cost medication. It's important to understand your health plan's rules for prescription coverage, in order to keep your pharmacy costs as low as possible.


"DAW" means your pharmacist can not substitute the generic drug for the brand name. Some insurance plans may require you to pay the cost difference for a brand name drug. Talk with your healthcare provider if you have questions about a DAW on your prescription.

Sig—Instructions That Go On the Prescription Label

"Sig" is short for the Latin "signetur." This means "let it be labeled." You may see this on your prescription just before the directions.

"Sig" tells the pharmacy what they should include on the drug's label. This ensures you will know how and when to take the medication.

Prescription Examples

For a diagnosis of high cholesterol:

  • Zocor 10 mg: This is the name of the medication and the dose.
  • Sig: i po qhs: Your instructions are to take one pill, by mouth, at bedtime.
  • Dispense #90: You will be given 90 pills, enough for about three months.
  • Refill 0 times: Your healthcare provider has indicated no refills. This is usually because you will need to see your healthcare provider before continuing the medication. Tests will help determine if the medication is working or you need a different dose.
  • DAW left blank: Your pharmacist will most likely give you simvastatin. This is the generic version of Zocor.

For a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes:

  • Glucophage 500 mg: This is the name of the medication and the dose.
  • Sig: i po bid pc: Your instructions are to take one pill, by mouth, twice each day, after meals. This means you should take this medication right after breakfast and right after dinner.
  • Dispense #180: You will be given 180 pills, enough for three months.
  • Refill 3 times: Your healthcare provider has indicated three refills. This is enough medication for one year. This may mean your diabetes is "stable" and well-controlled on this medication.
  • DAW left blank: Your pharmacist will most likely give you metformin. This is the generic version of Glucophage.

For a diagnosis of high blood pressure:

  • Diovan 40 mg: This is the name of the medication and the dose.
  • Sig: i po qd: Your instructions are to take one pill, by mouth, once each day. You most likely can take this medication either before or after a meal since your healthcare provider did not say otherwise.
  • Dispense #90: You will be given 90 pills, enough for about three months.
  • Refill 0 times: Your healthcare provider has indicated no refills. This is usually because you will need to see your healthcare provider before continuing the medication. Tests will help determine if the medication is working or you need a different dose.
  • DAW left blank: Your pharmacist will likely give you valsartan. This is the generic version of Diovan.


There are a wide range of abbreviations that are used for drug prescriptions. And although doctors and pharmacists understand these abbreviations, they aren't always clear to patients. Understanding your prescription can help you prevent a medical error. Always ask your healthcare provider for a copy of your prescription, and ask them to clarify any abbreviations that you don't understand.

In most cases, prescriptions are now transmitted to the pharmacy electronically, which means that illegible handwriting is no longer an obstacle. But that's not always the case, so it's important to make sure that if the prescription is given to you on paper (to take to the pharmacy yourself), you can clearly read what's written. And once the prescription is dispensed, make sure the label matches your healthcare provider's instructions.

A Word From Verywell

Understanding your prescriptions is a crucial part of managing your health care. You need to know what you're taking, and why you're taking it, and and special instructions that go along with the medications (eg, how often you need to take it, whether it should be taken with food, etc.).

Your pharmacist and doctor are both well-versed on making sure that the drugs you're taking are appropriate for your medical needs and won't conflict with each other if you need more than one drug. But the more you understand about all of this, the better off you'll be. If you have any questions at all about your prescription, including an abbreviation you don't understand, be sure to clarify the details with your doctor of pharmacist.

5 Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Pharmacy Times.A technician's guide to pharmacy abbreviations.

  2. Fallaize R, Dovey G, Woolf S. Prescription legibility: bigger might actually be better. Postgrad Med J. 2018;94(1117):617-620. doi:10.1136/postgradmedj-2018-136010.

  3. Achar S, Sinha N, Norcross W. The adoption and increased use of electronic prescribing of controlled substances.J Med Regul. 2021;107(2):8–16. doi:10.30770/2572-1852-107.2.8

  4. MD Toolbox. E-Prescribing Mandate State Laws.

  5. Shrank W, Liberman JN, Fischer MA, et al. The consequences of requesting “dispense as written.” Am J Med. 2011;124(4):309-317. doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2010.11.020

Additional Reading

By Michael Bihari, MD
Michael Bihari, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician, health educator, and medical writer, and president emeritus of the Community Health Center of Cape Cod.

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What can you do if you don t understand something a healthcare provider tells you? ›

If you don't understand, ask your provider to explain. Repeat any instructions back in your own words. If you've misunderstood, your provider will realize this, and explain in different words.

What is an example of written communication in healthcare? ›

The written word is a widely used form of communication and in health, social care and early years settings examples include the use of accident forms in a nursery to record minor injuries to the children, letters sent out by hospitals to inform patients of appointments, menus showing the choice of lunch options for ...

What type of written communication is commonly seen in the healthcare setting? ›

Written communication in the interprofessional context commonly includes documentation notes in a client's chart such as progress notes, physician orders, medication administration record, diagnostic reports, referral letters, and discharge notes.

How is health care written? ›

Associated Press (AP): The AP Stylebook, a consensus reference for journalists and news outlets suggests the two-word form health care as a noun and health-care as an adjective.

How do you make sure a patient understands what you're saying? ›

The teach-back method is a way of checking understanding by asking patients to state in their own words what they need to know or do about their health. It is a way to confirm that you have explained things in a manner your patients understand.

Why is it important for patients to understand their care? ›

Communication among the physician, nurse and health care assistant as a team, and patient is essential for effective delivery of healthcare. Patients do not understand their disease conditions, plan of care at the hospital and after discharge. This leads to an increase in adverse events following discharge.

What are 4 examples of written communication? ›

Examples of written communication include:
  • Emails.
  • Text messages.
  • Blog posts.
  • Business letters.
  • Reports.
  • Proposals.
  • Contracts.
  • Job descriptions.
Apr 12, 2023

What are 3 examples of written communication categories? ›

A few common forms of written communications include memos, bulletins, emails, faxes, and written advertisements.

What is 1 example of written communication? ›

Examples of written communication include emails, letters, reports, and manuals. It is often considered a more formal type of communication than verbal communication because writers must take more time to contemplate what they write, and it can be read verbatim at a later date.

Why is written communication so important in healthcare? ›

Studies have shown that patients forget 40-80% of the medical information they are told during office visits and that nearly half of the information they retain is incorrect. So, providing easy-to-understand written materials that reiterate your key points is important.

What does written communication mean in healthcare? ›

Written communication is vital in health and social care settings as it is used for different purposes: To record personal details. To keep medical/patient records. To issue medical prescriptions or referrals.

Why is written communication skills important in healthcare? ›

Written Communication

It is critical that the medical record is accurate and current so your patients can receive the best care possible. Also, remember to protect patient confidentiality. Some tips: Make notes immediately following patient care so you do not forget anything.

What type of writing is used in healthcare? ›

Types of Writing in Medical Sciences

Abstracts. Annotated Bibliographies. CVs and Resumes.

What writing format is used in healthcare? ›

(American Psychological Association) APA Style provides a foundation for effective scholarly communication because it helps writers present their ideas in a clear, precise, and inclusive manner.

How can I improve my writing skills in healthcare? ›

We've gathered some simple tips on improving your medical writing and taking your medical writing career to another level.
  1. Build Your Knowledge. ...
  2. Sharpen Your Analytical and Statistical Skills. ...
  3. Stay Consistent and Take Ownership. ...
  4. Keep Yourself Up-To-Date. ...
  5. Practice Plain Language Principles.
Dec 1, 2022

What to do if you can't understand a patient? ›

3 Ideas to Help You When You Cannot Understand A Patient
  1. Here are 3 ideas and tips to help you when you have a patient that you just cannot understand.
  2. 1 Ask politely for the patient to repeat.
  3. 2 Paraphrase What You Know.
  4. 3 Ask follow up questions.

What would happen if you don t understand medical terminology when working with a patient? ›

If the wrong medical terminology is used, it can drastically change the care the patient receives. A wrong diagnosis or wrong treatment plan can be harmful or even fatal.

What can healthcare professionals do to help patients overcome their lack of understanding of medical terminology? ›

Six strategies for discussing complex medical terms with patients
  1. Start with the big picture. ...
  2. Use patient-friendly terminology. ...
  3. Make the most of supplementary materials. ...
  4. Balance family support. ...
  5. Work around language barriers. ...
  6. Check to see that everything is clear.
Feb 12, 2020

What do you do if you don t know the answer to a patient's question? ›

Responding with “I'll find out” is a highly effective answer. Let the patient know you would like to consult a colleague, a research article, or medical resource, to find the information or verify your thinking.


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