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How to Avoid Medication Errors in the Hospital and at Home

pills spilling out of container: how to avoid medication errors in the hospitalMedication can make you feel better and can save your life. However, medications can also make you sicker – particularly if you take the wrong medication, or take a medication differently than your doctor prescribed. It’s important for you to know how to avoid medication errors in the hospital and at home.

Medication errors are occurring in hospitals and other in-patient facilities, and are happening when patients are at home, responsible for their own medications. Knowing how to avoid medication errors can help you heal and just might save your life!

Medication Issues in Hospitals

Medications are a common treatment in hospitals, with the average patient taking 10 different medications.  Given the quantity of medications being dispensed, and the fact that many pills look alike or have similar sounding names, it’s easy to see that without proper safeguards, busy staff members could easily give patients the wrong medications or the wrong dosage.

How common are medication errors in hospitals?

The Institute of Medicine estimates the average hospitalized patient experiences at least one medication error each day! This IOM report also states there are 1.5 million preventable adverse drug interactions each year in US hospitals and long-term care facilities.

How serious are hospital based medication errors?

These medication errors can lead to serious health consequences and even death.

Medication Issues at Home

Taking charge of your own medications does not necessarily mean you are free from the risks of medication errors. In fact, research has found that more than 50% of adults in the US don’t take their medications as prescribed.

How often are patients harming themselves by taking the wrong medication?

To determine how big a problem medication errors are when patients are responsible for their own medications, outside of hospitals, researchers analyzed National Poison Database System (NPDS) data from 2000 through 2012. They found that during this period, there were 67,603 reported exposures related to medication errors that resulted in serious medical outcomes.  They found a 100.0% rate increase during the 13-year study period.

Side note: It seems to me that not all medication errors are reported to the NPDS, so my intuition is that the number of incidents is likely much higher than what is reported in this study.

How did these medication errors impact health?

The study found that the impact on health was as follows (in the categories developed by the NPDS):

  • 93.5% –  moderate effect
  • 5.8% – major effect
  • 0.6% – death

What kinds of medication errors are patients making at home?

The most common types of medication errors found in this study were:

  • taking the incorrect dose
  • taking or administering the wrong medication
  • mistakenly taking a medication twice

What kinds of medications are frequently causing serious outcomes?

The study found the following medication categories were most frequently associated with serious outcomes:

  • 20.6% – cardiovascular drugs (primarily beta blockers, calcium antagonists, and clonidine)
  • 12.0% – analgesics (most often opioids and acetaminophen, alone and combination products)
  • 11.0% – hormones/hormone antagonists (in particular, insulin, and sulfonylurea).

How To Reduce Your Risk of Medication Errors

It cannot be overstated – you must pay attention to medication, whether you are in the hospital or at home.  Follow my suggestions to reduce your risk of medication errors.

For hospitalized patients:

  • Keep at your bedside a complete list of all medications prescribed, as well as for over-the-counter medications.
  • Ask the staffer to confirm the name and dosage of each medication before it is taken.
  • If a staff member gives you a medication that doesn’t look familiar, do NOT take it without getting clarification. Ask to speak to the charge (head) nurse if you don’t think you should be taking a particular medication. If you don’t get an answer that seems logical to you, ask to speak to your doctor, or the doctor covering the floor.

For patients at home:

  • Always carry a complete list of medications you are taking, including over-the-counter medicines. Share this list with each doctor – don’t assume each doctor knows what other doctors have prescribed.
  • When your doctor prescribes a new medication, ask your doctor why, how and when to take any medications.
  • Be sure you are getting the right medication at the pharmacy – it a medication looks different than in prior refills, ask the pharmacist to confirm that you have the right one.
  • pill sorter: how to avoid medication errors in the hospital and at homeOrganize your pills in a pill sorter – this will give you an easy visual cue as to whether or not you have taken your medication.
  • Set up a system to remind yourself to take your medications – set alarms on your phone and leave medications where you will see them (but not in the bathroom where humidity can affect medications).

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