One of the most important functions of a physician is to prescribe medications that will help cure a disease, such as prescribing an antibiotic to get rid of an infection or relieve a symptom, such as alleviating pain or preventing a disease from taking place.

It has been known for some time that patients donít always take the medications prescribed by their doctors. They either donít get the prescription filled or, if they do, they then donít take the medication.

A recent study showed the extent of this problem. Of the 37,506 prescriptions written by 131 primary care physicians, researchers determined that 31 percent of the patients did not get their prescriptions filled. This is a significant and unacceptable number.

The drugs that were least likely to be filled were those prescribed to treat skin diseases and gastrointestinal disorders. Antibiotics medications were the ones most likely to be filled. Individuals who were older, poorer or did not have co-payment types of insurance were most likely not to have their prescriptions filled.

Another issue of concern regarding medications is studies have shown that up to 50 percent of individuals taking medications take them incorrectly. And there is also the disturbing issue of medications being overprescribed, that is, they are not needed in the first place. An example is treating viral infections with antibiotics or overly tired individuals being prescribed thyroid medications, although their thyroid gland is functioning normally.

The use of over-the-counter medications is another concern. Some of these non-prescription medications have been shown to be not only ineffectual, but they may also be harmful.

Medications certainly save lives, prevent diseases and relieve symptoms, but they have to be used when they are indicated and taken properly.

The claims that we are an overmedicated society are true. This is a very serious matter and it is an epidemic that is out of control. A good start to correct this situation is through education, and that includes educating both patients and health professionals. But much more needs to be done to stem this epidemic, because too many people are affected by the misuse and overuse of medications.

Dr. Murray Feingold is the physician in chief of The Feingold Center for Children, medical editor of WBZ-TV and WBZ radio, and president of the Genesis Fund. The Genesis Fund is a nonprofit organization that funds the care of children born with birth defects, mental retardation and genetic diseases.