What are Medication Errors?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Medication errors are errors which involve medication. On a low level, a medication error may not cause a problem for a patient, but high level errors can result in severe complications for the patient, including death. Concern about medication errors has led a number of medical organizations and national governments to work on programs which are designed to reduce the incidence of such errors. Such programs can work in a number of different ways to help patients and doctors.

Overdosing is a common medication error.
Overdosing is a common medication error.

A common type of medication error is dispensing or administering the wrong medication. In a busy hospital or pharmacy, information can get confused or mixed up, and someone delivering drugs to a patient may make a mistake. It is also possible for a person writing a medication order to make an error, naming the wrong medication or not specifying a medication. One way to reduce the risk of such errors is to make sure that all medications are clearly marked and that they look very different, so that someone going to administer a pill which should be red can see that there is a problem if the pill is blue, or the wrong shape, or the wrong size.

A busy pharmacy can cause confusion leading to medication errors or the improper medication being given to a patient.
A busy pharmacy can cause confusion leading to medication errors or the improper medication being given to a patient.

Another type of medication error is the wrong dosage. Wrong dosages can happen when the wrong pill is given to a patient, when someone accidentally gives a patient too much or too little of a medication in the hospital, or when a medication order specifies the wrong dosage. This type of error can be corrected for by doublechecking dosage, and by making sure that people who dispense medication know that it is appropriate to consult a doctor if a dosage appears odd.

Doctors must be sure to consult with patients to determine appropriate prescriptions.
Doctors must be sure to consult with patients to determine appropriate prescriptions.

Medications can also be given at the wrong interval, given to the wrong patient, or given at the wrong time, causing medication errors. Other medication errors can involve the administration of two medications which conflict, or the use of a medication which is contraindicated for a particular patient. These errors can happen when a patient does not give a complete history to a doctor, or when a patient is using multiple pharmacies which do not communicate at each other, making it difficult to catch conflicting medications.

Pharmacy technicians need to work in low-pressure environments so as to minimize the occurrence of medication errors.
Pharmacy technicians need to work in low-pressure environments so as to minimize the occurrence of medication errors.

Combating medication errors is a cooperative effort. Patients need to keep track of the medications they use and why those medications are prescribed, and they should not be afraid to ask a doctor to confirm that a new prescription does not conflict with existing drugs. Likewise, pharmacy technicians and other people who prepare and dispense medications need to work in low-pressure environments which allow them to take their time to confirm medication orders they receive. Doctors with prescribing privileges also need to make sure that they use clear language in medication orders, and that they consult their patients to confirm that a medication will be safe for use in a particular case.

Patients who report an incorrect dosage or other medication error can choose to remain anonymous.
Patients who report an incorrect dosage or other medication error can choose to remain anonymous.
Pharmacists may be able to spot an incorrect prescription before it is filled in some cases.
Pharmacists may be able to spot an incorrect prescription before it is filled in some cases.
Patients on multiple drugs may benefit from using a pill organizer.
Patients on multiple drugs may benefit from using a pill organizer.
Including a description of a pill's color and shape on the bottle can help prevent medication errors.
Including a description of a pill's color and shape on the bottle can help prevent medication errors.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

fify

But what if a pharmacist fills the wrong drug and I have never taken that drug before? It's almost impossible to know.

discographer

@literally45-- I agree with you. That's why I always double check the medications that I'm prescribed. People can make mistakes, we need to be proactive and protect our health.

When I'm prescribed a new medication, I go home and first read through everything. I read the drug pamphlet that the pharmacy gives me. I also read about the drug online, especially about potential side effects and interactions with other drugs. If I have any doubts, I call my doctor or my pharmacist to clarify them. I don't blindly take everything that is given to me and there have been a few occasions where I went back to my doctor and asked him to prescribe me an alternative medication with less side effects.

literally45

My mother had to go to the emergency room once because of a medication error. In her situation, the error was made by the doctor who prescribed her the medication. My mom has high blood pressure and despite knowing this, her doctor prescribed her a medication that interacts negatively with her blood pressure medication. So my mom's blood pressure went up and she developed heart palpitations. She was home alone and thought that she was having a heart attack and called an ambulance.

They got her blood pressure down at the hospital and calmed her down with a sedative. But if she hadn't called them, things could have been much worse.

Medication errors can really be fatal and everyone who is involved in the process of prescribing and administrating drugs need to be extremely careful.

mrwormy

I've heard another problem is the similarity of names for prescription medications. Doctors are already notorious for their bad handwriting, and sometimes a pharmacist will misread the prescription. I think they have better safeguards in place now, but I remember hearing stories about patients being prescribed a medication I'll call Problovia when they were actually supposed to get Provobilax. The names are so similar that an occasional mistake is almost inevitable.

I think doctors today allow their assistants to submit the prescription electronically to pharmacies and any discrepancies or interactions are supposed to be flagged ahead of time.

Reminiscence

In this day of doctor shopping, I've heard horror stories about people getting really sick or dying from conflicting prescriptions. One doctor will prescribe a certain kind of sedative for sleep and another doctor will prescribe a narcotic pain medication. Neither one of them has made a medication error, but the combination turns out to be lethal. That's why it's never a good idea for patients to seek out other doctors whenever a primary doctor won't prescribe a controversial or addictive medication.

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