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Drug errors: When your medication isn't the best medicine

Even if you are one of the very few lucky individuals who doesn't take a prescription medication (or several) on a daily basis, you likely know many people who do. With so many Ohio patients, young and old alike, relying on medication to keep them healthy, you would think that medication errors would be almost unheard of because doctors and pharmacists would take the utmost caution when it comes to ensuring drug accuracy and safety.

Sadly, this is not the case. Millions across the United States suffer injuries ranging from minor to severe because of drug errors and pharmaceutical mistakes every year. Exactly how do these life-threatening mistakes occur? More importantly, is there anything you can do to keep yourself and your loved ones safe?

The whens and whys of medication mistakes

Decades ago, the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) formed a committee to evaluate reports of medication errors and to determine appropriate courses of action. What they found was that mistakes don't always just occur because, say, a pharmacy technician isn't paying close enough attention; rather, medication errors may happen at any point in the distribution system, from when the doctor wrongfully prescribes a medication to repackaging, dispensing or administration of the drug and beyond. Generally, the most common causes include:

  • Poor communication
  • Ambiguous product names
  • Unclear directions for use
  • Confusing or similar medical abbreviations
  • Poor hand-writing that is difficult to decipher
  • Faulty procedures or techniques

However, the CDER also found other factors that contribute to or even directly cause potentially dangerous medication mistakes, including but not limited to:

  • Job stress
  • Insufficient training
  • Lack of product knowledge
  • Overly similar labelling or packaging

Perhaps the most frightening detail amidst all this information is that so many of these factors are attributable mainly to the errors or negligence of health care professionals and thus are outside your control. You, as the patient -- or parent/caregiver of a patient -- should not have to worry about ensuring prescription accuracy; that's the responsibility of the doctor and pharmacist. However, you also never want to become a victim because of another's carelessness. So, is there anything you can do to reduce your risk of potentially life-endangering medication mix-ups?

Catching errors before they cause trouble

Common advice offers a few tactics you can adopt to help decrease the likelihood that a doctor's or pharmacist's error will affect you negatively. When your doctor prescribes a new medication, consider having him or her tell you both the brand name and the generic name of the drug, what it's used for, and the correct dosage, while you write this information down. Not only does doing so force doctors to stop and think -- and double-check themselves in the process -- but it allows you to ensure accuracy later.

You can use this written information to check for correctness with your pharmacist, as well, when you go to pick up your prescription. Additionally, having the facts handy makes it easier to research the medication, along with potential side effects, special usage instructions, proper storage and more. This way, if you begin suffering ill effects or spot a discrepancy, you may notice these things much earlier than you would have otherwise, and you can then follow up with a doctor as soon as possible.

When mistakes occur

Hopefully, being as informed as possible will help protect you against medication errors. However, if a serious mistake has occurred and left you or a loved one suffering as a result, there are professional resources available to you -- both legal and medical -- that exist to provide you with guidance and help when such egregious medical negligence occurs.

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