Reducing Our Risk For Medication Mistakes

Adverse drug events occur when harm is experienced by patients following exposure to a medication. These events are caused by medication errors.

By taking an active role in our health care, and learning about the medications our family takes, we can help prevent medication mistakes that occur when drugs are prescribed, dispensed, or administered.

About Adverse Events

Adverse drug events are responsible for almost 700,000 emergency room visits, and 100,000 hospital stays, every year. They are one of the most common inpatient hospital errors affecting nearly five percent of patients; the incidence rate for outpatients may be higher.

One example of a drug error is being prescribed two medications with the same active ingredient. If, for instance, someone is taking Wellbutrin for depression relief, and then goes on Zyban to quit smoking, they will be ingesting two brand name medications containing the drug bupropion. Though bupropion is effective for depression and smoking cessation, taking Zyban and Wellbutrin together can create a bupropion overdose.

Common causes of medication errors are:

  • Poor communication between health care providers.
  • Poor communication between providers and patients.
  • Confusing medical abbreviations.
  • Sound-alike medication names.

So, whether we are at a pharmacy, doctor’s office, hospital, residential facility, or at home it’s in our best interest to speak up if we question a prescription, or don’t understand the information provided.

Being Wise Consumers

Being curious and wise consumers of medication should begin whenever we are handed a new prescription. It’s essential that we find out:

  • The drug’s scientific name, and the brand or generic name of the medication.
  • Why the drug is being prescribed, and when results can be expected.
  • The correct medication dose, and how long it needs to be taken.
  • What food, drink, other drugs, or activities should be avoided while on the medication.
  • The possible side effects, and how to respond if they occur.
  • How to respond if a dose is missed, or if more than the recommended dose is taken.
  • Whether the drug interferes or influences other medications being taken, and how.

A sense of confidence will tell us when we've asked enough questions to take, or administer a drug safely. It’s better to “be a bother” than to end up in the emergency room because of a medication error.

If speaking with a doctor or pharmacist does not resolve concerns about a medication, the Food and Drug Administration has set up a confidential safety and adverse event reporting system. It’s called MedWatch, and a link is provided below.

Reducing Our Risk

Though we are all susceptible to medication errors, some of us are more at risk than others. One major risk factor is polypharmacy, or the simultaneous use of several drugs to treat the same condition. Elderly family members who are often on a variety of medications are also vulnerable to mistakes, as are children whose medications need to be dosed according to their weight. Those with limited health literacy or poor math skills are at higher risk, as well.

As consumers and caregivers, we know that medication errors occur not only at medical facilities, but in the home. To reduce this likelihood, we can choose to practice the same “Five Rights” of medication safety that nurses do:

Give the Right Medication, in the Right Dose, at the Right Time, by the Right Route, to the Right Patient.

By being knowledgeable, and making sure medications are given as prescribed, we can help ourself - and our loved ones - stay safe.

Sources: Mayo Clinic; Patient Safety Network ; MedWatch

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