More and more people rely upon the daily use of prescription medications. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), it is estimated that in the United States alone, almost half of all people are taking at least one prescription medication while 1 in 6 people are taking three or more medications (Source: CDC 2004 Press Release).
There is no question that when used and dispensed properly, prescription drugs do improve health and save lives. However, the unfortunate fact remains that along with the good prescription drugs provide, there is always the risk of a medication error occurring when the drug is dispensed and taken. In fact, medication errors occur all too frequently, sometimes with deadly results.
Medication safety begins with you. Here are some steps you can follow to help your family avoid medication errors:
Always make sure your doctor’s office and your pharmacy know all of the prescription medications, herbal supplements, vitamins and over-the-counter medications your family member is taking and any known allergies they may have. This can help prevent dangerous drug interactions, allergic reactions, or overdoses. Keep a current list of all the medications your family members take and make sure you update it when something changes. This medication list should include information such as the name of medication taken, the strength, form (pill, liquid, etc.), how often taken, and when the medication was started.
Have all your prescriptions filled at the same pharmacy. Pharmacies have computer programs that can check for harmful drug interactions between different medicines being taken at the same time as well as possible allergic reactions. However, in order for this to work, the pharmacy needs to know all medications, vitamins, and supplements you or your family members are taking as well as any known allergies. Having all your prescriptions filled at one pharmacy also allows your medical providers to access all your medication information from one source. This can save valuable time and confusion.
If possible, get your new prescriptions in writing to take to the pharmacy to be filled. Mistakes can happen when prescriptions are called in by phone — remember playing “the telephone game” as a child? One child will whisper to another child who will repeat the same thing to another child and so on until the last child says out loud what he or she heard. Remember how the end story never matched the beginning one? Unfortunately, this can happen with prescriptions too. Written prescriptions eliminate errors due to communication problems over the telephone.
Make sure you know from your doctor’s office the following information about the drug being given: name, strength, directions for taking/using it, number/amount given, and why the drug is being given. You may need your doctor or someone from his/her office to write this information down for you on a separate sheet of paper. (Never write on, or alter, a prescription you are given from your doctor.) Knowing this information can help you double check that you did receive the right medication from your pharmacy. This step acts as a double check that your written prescription was filled as your doctor intended. It is especially important to understand as much information about a new medication before you leave your doctor’s office. Additional prescription medication information can also be found in reference books available at your local library or bookstore (pill books, PDR), or at on-line sites like http://www.safemedication.com.
If you are simply refilling a prescription, be sure the refilled drug matches the drug your family member has been taking. If they do not match exactly, then you need find out why. If you are used to receiving little orange tablets and instead you have been given larger white tablets, you need to find out what is going on. You may have been given a different company’s drug or you may have been given the wrong drug. Do not have your family member take any questionable refill medications until you can check with your pharmacist to make sure you have the right medication. If the medication is different, check with your doctor to see if your family member is supposed to take a different medication.
If you are filling a prescription for a child, an elderly person or someone who is extremely overweight or underweight, make sure the doctor and pharmacist know the age and weight of the patient. Medication amounts are often based upon the weight of the patient especially for children. Also, some medications are not given to children until they reach certain ages. Similarly, some medications should be avoided for senior citizens.
Have your family member take all medications as instructed (right number of doses, avoid certain foods, etc.) and keep a list of any problems they experience while on a medication. Problems should be shared with your doctor’s office. They can help you decide how serious the problem is and if adjustments to your medication are needed.
Making sure you get the right medications in a hospital or nursing home is much harder to do since you do not see original packaging and you may be receiving some medication through an I.V. (receiving drugs through a vein). In addition, you may be sleeping or not feeling well when the medication is given. In these cases, do the best you can and always ask what medications are being given and what they are for. Be sure the person who is giving the medication is aware of any allergies you may have.
If you are the patient and are not able to ask questions, then have your patient advocate (who knows your medical and prescription history) find out what drugs have been prescribed for you and why. Your patient advocate can then help verify if you are receiving the correct medications. You can do the same thing for a family member if you are their patient advocate. Some hospitals and pharmacies are now beginning to use bar code systems and other technology to help prevent drug-dispensing errors. However, not all hospitals are doing this yet, and no system is perfect. Therefore, it’s still best to double-check what drugs are being given to you at all times.
Dr. Donna Pikula is an award-winning healthcare writer and speaker who helps people become smarter patients. Smarter patients know how to receive the health care they deserve for themselves and their loved ones, while reducing their chances of suffering from medical errors. Dr. Pikula invites you to visit [http://books2helpyou.com] to learn more about the award-winning book After the Diagnosis: How to Look Out for Yourself or a Loved One and its companion notebook, My Medical Organizer. While visiting, we also encourage you to discover other SMART patient tips and sign-up for our monthly health newsletter!