By Chris Woolston, M.S.
In an ideal world, doctors would always prescribe the right drugs, pharmacists would never mess up orders, and patients would always carefully follow the instructions on their medicine bottles. In the real world, people sometimes make mistakes. And when it comes to medicine, mistakes can be dangerous.
According to a 2006 report from the Institute of Medicine, 1.5 million preventable medication errors result in injury or death each year. Many hospitals, doctors, and pharmacies have dedicated themselves to taking the mistakes out of medicine. But the professionals can't do it alone. Patients need to do their part to make sure they're taking the right medicine in the right way.
How to protect yourself
- First and foremost, make sure you understand all the instructions on your medications and follow them to the letter. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about any instructions that are the slightest bit unclear, and ask about interactions. (Some drugs will interact with other drugs or even with foods or herbs.) Patients who have trouble understanding a doctor's instructions should bring a friend or family member along to their appointments.
- Give your healthcare providers a list of every drug you take, including herbal remedies or over-the-counter products like aspirin. This will greatly reduce the chance that a doctor will prescribe a drug that clashes with one of your other medications.
- Be sure to tell your doctor if you've ever had a bad reaction to a drug. This could include an allergic reaction, often marked by wheezing, rashes, or hives.
- Know the potential side effects of each medication and what you should do if they occur.
- No matter how tempting, don't take medicine prescribed for someone else or share your prescriptions with others.
- Keep a medicine calendar that lists the correct time and dosage for each medication. When you've taken your medicine, make a check-mark on the calendar, so you don't wind up taking too much medicine (or too little).
- Incorporate your medications into your daily routine: that way, it'll be easier to remember to take them. If appropriate, combine your medicine-taking with other routines such as eating lunch or brushing your teeth.
- If you're taking several medications at once, consider using a pill organizer. Throw out drugs once their expiration dates have passed. (Dont throw them down the toilet unless the drugs instructions say to. Otherwise they may end up in our water supply.)
- Always keep medications in their original containers. Although it may seem practical to store a few prescription pills in an old vitamin bottle during your vacation, you might end up swallowing a drug when you meant to take a vitamin.
- Whenever you pick up a prescription, ask the pharmacist what the drug is for. If you have athlete's foot and the pharmacist tries to give you an anti-seizure medication, you know there's been a mix-up.
- Turn on the light when taking medications at night. It's alarming how easy it is to mix up pills in the dark.
- When getting a prescription refilled, be alert for any sudden, unexpected changes. If the pills are a different color or shape or if the instructions have changed, double-check the prescription with your doctor or pharmacist.
- If you're going to the hospital, arrange for a family member or another companion to stay with you: They can make sure you get the right medications and speak up if something doesn't seem right. They can also help you write down the name and dosage of all the medications you're taking (a good reference in case there's any confusion later on).
- Keep the lines of communication open. Share any questions or concerns with your doctor or pharmacist, and answer their questions as completely as possible. Mistakes are much less likely when everyone's on the same page.
Office of National Drug Control Policy. Proper Disposal of Prescription Drugs. February 2007.
The Institute of Medicine. To err is human: Building a better health system. November, 1999.
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Patient Fact Sheet: 20 tips to help prevent medical errors. February, 2000.
Institute for Safe Medication Practices. Be an informed consumer. 2003.
American Academy of Family Physicians. How to get the most from your medicine. February, 2003.
Institute of Medicine. Preventable Medication Errors. July 2006.