Medication errors: Cut your risk with these tips

Medication errors are preventable. Your best defense is asking questions and being informed about the medications you take.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Medication errors may sound harmless, but mistakes in prescribing, dispensing and administering medications injure more than 1 million people a year in the United States. Yet most medication errors can be prevented. How can you protect yourself and your family?

One of the best ways to reduce your risk of being harmed by medication errors is to take an active role in your health care. Learn about the medications you take — including possible side effects. Never hesitate to ask questions or share concerns with your doctor, pharmacist and other health care providers.

Just what are medication errors?

Medication errors are preventable events that lead to medications being used inappropriately. Medication errors that cause harm are called adverse drug events.

An example of a medication error is taking over-the-counter products that contain acetaminophen when you're already taking prescription pain medicine that contains acetaminophen, possibly exceeding the recommended dose and putting yourself at risk of liver damage.

Another example of a possible error is taking sulfamethoxazole/trimethoprim (used to treat infection) at the same time as warfarin (a blood thinner). This combination can increase your risk of dangerous bleeding.

How do medication errors happen?

Although medication errors can happen anywhere, including your own home, most occur in doctors' offices, hospitals and pharmacies. Knowing what you're up against can help you play it safe. The most common causes of medication errors are:

  • Poor communication between health care providers
  • Poor communication between providers and their patients
  • Sound-alike medication names and medical abbreviations
  • Illegible prescriptions or confusing directions

Communication is key to preventing medication errors

Knowledge is your best defense. If you don't understand something your doctor says, ask for an explanation. Whenever you start a new medication, make sure you know the answers to the following:

  • What is the brand or generic name of the medication?
  • What is it supposed to do? How long will it be until I see results?
  • What is the dose? How long should I take it?
  • Are there any foods, drinks, other medications or activities I should avoid while taking this medicine?
  • What are the possible side effects? What should I do if they occur?
  • What should I do if I miss a dose?
  • What should I do if I accidentally take more than the recommended dose?
  • Will this new medication interfere with my other medication(s) and how?

Asking questions is essential, but it isn't enough. You also have to share information with your doctor and pharmacist, especially if you're getting a new prescription or seeing a new doctor. Here's what you need to tell your health care providers:

  • The names of all the medications you're taking, including over-the-counter products and supplements
  • Any medications that you're allergic to or that have caused problems for you in the past
  • Whether you have any chronic or serious health problems
  • If you might be pregnant or you're trying to become pregnant
Oct. 15, 2011 See more In-depth