Intended for Good, Mistakes Can Turn a Medication Deadly. Here’s How to Stay Safe.
It may not be possible to prevent every medication error, but you can take steps to avoid becoming a victim of medication mistakes. There are several stages where dangerous medication mistakes can occur. Therefore, it pays to be on guard at every level.
Don’t ever be afraid to ask questions or seek clarification when it comes to medicine. Ask your doctor and/or pharmacist, and don’t just figure you can look it up on the internet later. Advice on the internet is very broad and may not apply to your situation.
Make Sure Your Doctor Has the Right Information
If your doctor starts the medical treatment process with inaccurate information, your chances of receiving faulty medication increase significantly. One of the best ways to protect yourself from errors is to ensure that each doctor you work with has current and correct information on file for you.
Pro Tip 1: You should confirm crucial facts such as:
- Full name and contact information
- Known allergies, sensitivities and reactions
- All medical conditions, including recent diagnoses
- Non-prescription medications and supplements taken
- All currently prescribed medicines
Additionally, you should ask if the doctor’s office uses some form of name alert procedure to prevent mix-ups involving patients with similar names.
Educate Yourself About Your Conditions and Medications
The more you know about the medications you are taking, the better able you will be to prevent dangerous interactions or recognize side effects in time to address problems. Not only is it a good idea to learn as much as possible about your medications, but you should also educate yourself about medications prescribed for your children or others you are responsible for assisting, such as an older parent.
Your doctor might alert you to avoid certain over-the-counter medications if you take a prescription that should not be combined with other meds. However, do not rely on that, as your physician may forget to mention it. Instead, place the burden on yourself to ask before taking any over-the-counter medications with your prescribed meds. If more than one doctor prescribes or recommends medicines for you, ask each one how it will combine with others you take regularly.
Pro Tip 2: Before leaving the doctor’s office or starting a new medication, find out:
- The brand name and generic name of the medicine
- The exact dosage and how it should be measured
- How often it should be taken and for how long
- How to respond if you miss a dose
- What the medication is supposed to do and when results should become evident
- What to do if you take too much
- What activities or foods should be avoided while on the medication
Above all, make sure you understand the potentially dangerous side effects so that you can seek emergency assistance if you have a bad reaction.
Are You Taking a “High-Alert” Medication?
Doctors refer to certain substances as “high-alert” medications that are more likely to cause severe injuries if prescribed or administered incorrectly. Medical professionals know that they are supposed to take extra precautions when prescribing, dispensing, or administering these medications, but negligent behavior can lead to mistakes.
The risks can be particularly significant for patients in older age groups. In fact, industry insiders have established a long list of medications that should generally not be prescribed for patients over the age of 65 because the risks do not outweigh the benefits, and less dangerous options are available.
Patients and their caregivers need to know if they have been prescribed medications that are on the high-alert list established by the Institute for Sale Medication Practices or the AGS Beers Criteria list of medications to avoid. Unfortunately, the Beers list is no longer made available to the public, but doctors have access to this list, and patients can ask whether a medication is on the list and, if so, why the doctor chose it instead of a safer alternative.
Seek a Medical Reconciliation
It is imperative to undergo a medical reconciliation to avoid duplications, omissions, dosing errors, or interaction problems. This process involves comparing a list of medications on file with a health care provider with the medications actually being taken by the patient.
A medical reconciliation should be standard procedure when a patient experiences a transition in care with changes in medication. This might include admission or discharge from the hospital, being seen by a new doctor, or receiving a different type of medical care. If a provider fails to perform a medical reconciliation, that could be considered negligent, and it can undoubtedly pose unnecessary risks to a patient. So to protect yourself and your loved ones, don’t be afraid to ask for a medical reconciliation.
Safe Medication Practices at Home
While many medication errors are caused by mistakes made by pharmacists and doctors, patients and caregivers also need to take precautions to avoid medication mistakes at home.
Pro Tip 3: As a safe practice, it is recommended that patients:
- Understand the dosage and how to measure it
- Use the right spoon (not a kitchen tablespoon)
- Don’t cut pills without asking the doctor or pharmacist
- Don’t chew or crush tablets without asking the doctor or pharmacist
- Keep the medicine in the original container with the safety information nearby
- Confirm that medication is correct (name, strength, dosage instructions) before leaving the pharmacy
- Avoid giving the medication to anyone other than the patient for whom it was prescribed
This last practice is especially important. Even if a doctor prescribes the same medication for another person, it may be a different strength, so giving it to another person could cause serious harm. It is also essential to store medicines safely so others cannot take them.
Medication Safety Requires Collaboration with Medical Professionals
Patients can take steps to protect themselves from medication errors, but doctors and pharmacists need to do their part, too. The long-standing joke about doctors’ lousy handwriting has been shown to be true in far too many surveys, and the results are not at all funny when patients’ lives are put at risk.
Pro Tip 4: If possible, try to get prescriptions sent electronically to avoid the need to decipher handwriting. If you do get a handwritten prescription, confirm the details before leaving the doctor’s office and make sure the pharmacy understands them as well.
Handwriting is not the only area of potential confusion. Find out what abbreviations mean and make sure they are communicated correctly as well. If you take medications that look similar, establish procedures for yourself to keep them separate so they do not get mixed up.
Pro Tip 5: If possible, try to use the same pharmacy for all your medications. The procedures at the pharmacy could serve as a backup to avoid potential problems such as duplications.
Children Often Face Extra Risks When it Comes to Medication Errors
Children can often suffer due to medication errors involving both prescription and over-the-counter medications. Formulas designed for infants and children are often different concentrations than those used by adults, and sometimes they are stronger. For instance, medicines given to infants in a dropper may be stronger than liquid medications for older children because babies might have trouble drinking a full dose of the diluted medication. Also, parents sometimes continue to use the drops for older children and just assume they need a higher amount because they weigh more. However, this can result in an overdose.
Because of their smaller size, the effect of medication errors can have a much more dangerous impact on a child’s body. Therefore, it is essential to take extra care when measuring and administering medication to a child.
Sending Medications to a School or Daycare
If you have ever needed to arrange for your child to take medication while they are in someone else’s care, such as during school, daycare, or summer camp, you may have filled out a lot of complicated paperwork. You were probably required to provide a note prepared by a doctor tailored just for the setting. The process to get approval to dispense medication can seem quite complex.
Unfortunately, you cannot assume those elaborate procedures guarantee that your child will receive the medication as directed without error. However, there are some ways to help reduce the risk of mistakes.
Pro Tip 6:
- Get separate bottles. If your child needs to take a prescription medication while in school, daycare or camp, ask the pharmacist to divide the medicine into separate bottles for home and school, each with its own label.
- An adult should carry the medication to school. Most schools require this, even for older students.
- Ask the school for the forms they require. Many times, a doctor must authorize anything taken in school, even vitamins.
- Send medication in the original container with the original dosage instructions
It is also a good idea to check in with the staff member at the school who will be administering the medicine. Make sure they understand the instructions and make it easy for them to contact you if questions or problems arise.
Be Alert to Avoid Becoming the Victim of Medication Errors
Vigilance is the key to avoiding medication mistakes. Verify information before starting a medication, and check bottles carefully each time you administer medication. Try to keep medicines in one place, preferably one without too many distractions — if you’re caught up in the latest episode of your favorite TV show, it can be easy to lose track of what you’re doing.
If a medication error occurs, seek prompt medical attention. In situations where the mistake was due to the negligence of medical professionals, you may be entitled to legal relief to help offset the problems and provide for future needs.