Medication Errors – And How You Can Avoid Being a Victim

Medication errors are among the most common medical mistakes, harming at least 1.5 million people every year, according to a recent report by the Institute of Medicine. The additional medical costs of treating these drug related injuries in hospitals adds up to at least $3.5 billion per year – and that doesn’t even include the human costs of these injuries.

One Medication Error Per Hosptial Patient

Shockingly, the report found that, on average, there is at least one medication error per hospital patient each day. Thankfully, not all of these errors result injury. Nevertheless, the problem is serious. The committee that prepared the report noted that at least 400,000 preventable drug related injuries occur each year in hospitals and another 800,000 in long term care facilities. Of course, these types of errors occur at home as well.

Medication errors are an even bigger problem among older adults. According to a study by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), almost half of the fatal medication errors occurred in people over the age of 60.   One theory is that older people are at greater risk for medication error because they often take multiple medications.

The medical industry is gradually taking steps to address this problem. Still, it is likely to remain a problem for many years to come. Here are some things that you can do to avoid being the victim of a medication error.

1. Keep a list of your medications and dosages:

In an emergency many people don’t have time to gather their prescriptions and dosages before going to the hospital. In theory, your doctors and hospital should communicate to get you on the correct dosages. In practice, that communication can be flawed and could take days. If, for example, you are supposed to be taking blood thinners – that lag time can be fatal.

2. Monitor the Dose:

 According to a study by the FDA 41% of fatal medication errors involved patients receiving an improper dose of the medication. At home, this means knowing the difference between a teaspoon and a tablespoon – for liquid medicines. It can also mean following the medication directions and checking to make sure your pills look the same when you receive them from the pharmacy. In a facility, this means checking the doses and asking questions. If you can’t do it you may need a friend to keep an eye on things.

3. Always have an advocate:

Patient advocates suggest that you always have a friend or relative who can keep an eye on your care when you go into a hospital or facility.

4. Recognize when you need help:

For patients who suffer from memory loss, dementia, or Alzheimer’s, medication management can become a big issue. If you or a loved one are struggling with forgetting to take medications, the results can be serious. Interventions can range from a simple pillbox, to a home care nurse to assist with medications.

5. Discuss prescriptions with your doctor:

In this age of specialization, many of us see more than one doctor. When a doctor prescribes medication to you, make sure you tell them all of the other medications you are taking. Also, don’t leave the office until you have a good understanding of what the medication is intended to do, and if there are any special instructions.

6. Don’t Forget About Non-Prescription Medicines:

 Herbal supplements, Tylenol, Advil and other over-the-counter products may be perfectly safe on their own, but they can still have interactions with your prescription drugs. Ibuprofen, for example, can have blood-thinning properties that make it dangerous after surgery.  Be sure to tell your doctor about everything you are taking – not just the prescriptions.

7. Know your drug allergies:

Your family physician may know that you are allergic to penicillin, but that doesn’t mean that the hospital knows. Write the allergies on your list of medications that you bring with you to the hospital. For severe allergies, consider getting a bracelet that identifies your allergies. In any event, you need to know them and communicate them to each doctor you see.

8. Always ask questions: 

Don’t assume that your medical providers know best. No competent professional should be offended by a question. If something doesn’t seem right – ask about it.    According to the Mayo Clinic, these are some of the most common causes of medication errors:

  • Poor communication between health care providers
  • Poor communication between providers and patients
  • Sound-alike medication names and medical abbreviations
  • Illegible prescriptions or confusing directions

 Lawyers often investigate medication errors after the fact.  Although it can be important to find a remedy after the injury has occurred – it would be better to avoid the problem altogether. Preventing medication errors is an important issue for our health system to address. Until then, you can improve your chances of staying safe by advocating for yourself.

Photo Courtesy of Charles Williams

One thought on “Medication Errors – And How You Can Avoid Being a Victim”

  1. It is a frightening concept and thank you for writing about it! Happily I carry a list of meds on my iPhone. It is updated by my doctor any time there is a change. The hospital has access to the same list including allergies. During a recent brief stay, it was heartening that the RN realized that the pharmacy made a mistake on one med and sent it back

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