A doctor holds a prescription bottle with a sad face on it, indicating a medication error.

How to Reduce Your Chance of Medication Errors

Medication errors, which occur in hospitals, care facilities, and at home, can lead to serious health consequences, including death. Therefore, it’s critical that you learn how to reduce your chance of medication errors.

Medication issues in hospitals and healthcare facilities

Collectively, patients in hospitals and healthcare facilities take a lot of medications. In fact, the average patient takes 10 different medications. Given the huge amount of medications used, and the fact that many pills look alike or have similar-sounding names, it’s clear that without proper safeguards, busy staff members could easily make medication errors.

How common are medication errors? The Institute of Medicine estimates the average patient in a healthcare facility experiences at least one medication error each day – leading to an estimated 1.5 million preventable adverse drug interactions every year in US hospitals and long-term care facilities.

What causes medication errors in hospitals and other healthcare facilities?

Medication errors in healthcare facilities include dispensing the wrong drug or the wrong dosage, drug overdoses, and overlooked drug interactions and allergies. There are numerous opportunities for mistakes along the way, including:

  1. Prescribers can easily order the wrong medication since many medications have similar names. Or prescribers can order the wrong dosage due to mathematical errors.
  2. Pharmacists can misread prescriptions, especially handwritten ones. Also, pharmacists can select the wrong medication or wrong dosage due to confusion over drugs with similar names or look-alike packaging. And pharmacists can provide one patient with medication meant for another.
  3. Lastly, nurses can give a patient the wrong medication, or give a medication at the wrong time.


Medication Issues at Home

Taking medications at home doesn’t eliminate your chance of medication errors. In fact, research shows that more than 50% of adults in the U.S. don’t take their medications as prescribed.

The most common medication errors made by patients at home are:

  • Taking the incorrect dose.
  • Taking the wrong medication.
  • Mistakenly taking a medication twice.


How to reduce your chance of medication errors

Follow these suggestions to reduce your chance of medication errors.

At home:

  • Keep an updated list of all your medications with you at all times, including over-the-counter medications. Share this list with your doctors – they often don’t know what other doctors prescribe.
  • Tell your doctors about any medication-related allergies and/or side effects.
  • When getting a new medication, ask your doctor why, how, and when to take it. Write this information down.
  • Be sure you get the right medication at the pharmacy. If your new medication looks different from prior refills, ask the pharmacist to confirm you have the right drug.
  • Use a pill sorter to make it easier to take the right medications at the right time. Sorters also provide an easy visual clue as to whether or not you have taken your medication. For complicated medication regimens, keep track with the ZaggoCare medication chart.
  • Set reminders, such as cell phone alarms, for each time you need to take a medication.
  • Leave medications where you will see them – but not in the bathroom where humidity can affect medications.
  • Don’t stop taking a medication without talking to your doctor.


In the hospital:

  • Keep an up-to-date chart with all your medications and the time of day you take them. When getting medications, check your chart to make sure you get the right medications at the right time.
  • Tell your doctors and nurses about any medication-related allergies and/or side effects.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask the nurse what medications you’re getting. If something doesn’t look or sound familiar, or it’s not the right time of day, do not take it! Ask to speak to your doctor, or the charge nurse, before taking it. Since your life may depend on it, it’s critical that you stand your ground!
  • Ask if any of your medications are considered “high-alert”, which must be given the right way at the right time. As appropriate, ask what steps staff take to make sure you get high-alert medications in the proper manner and time.

Never take any medications from home without checking with your doctor and nurse. You could develop an adverse drug reaction or other issues.

Roberta Carson started Zaggo, a nonprofit organization, to help patients and family caregivers manage illnesses and injuries, after her experience as caregiver for her teenage son Zachary during his battle with terminal brain cancer.  The unique, award-winning ZaggoCare System provides patients and families with the educational information, tools, and resources they need to become empowered, engaged, effective members of their medical teams for the best possible care. Additionally, the Zaggo blog offers helpful advice for patient and family caregivers. 100% of the profits from the sale of ZaggoCare are donated to pediatric brain tumor research in memory of Zachary.

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About Triage Cancer

Triage Cancer is a national, nonprofit providing free education to people diagnosed with cancer, advocates, caregivers, and health care professionals on cancer-related legal and practical issues. Through eventsmaterials, and resources, Triage Cancer is dedicated to helping people move beyond diagnosis.

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