Martine Ehrenclou, MA, is a patient advocate and the award-winning author of The Take-Charge Patient. Learn more about Martine and her work at thetakechargepatient.com.
Medical errors kill more people than auto accidents, breast cancer, and AIDS. Not that you need more to worry about when you visit your doctor or are admitted into a hospital. It’s probably enough that you are nervous about your medical concerns or aren’t feeling well.
But there is something you can do.
Be a take charge patient
By taking charge of yourself as a patient and partnering with your medical providers, you will not only reduce your chances of becoming a victim to a medical error but also increase your confidence as a patient. Why? Because being involved in your healthcare puts you in a position of control. The more you know, the more empowered you feel.
It’s easy to fall into old habits with medical providers. We all do it. Maybe you expect your doctor to have all of your information at his or her fingertips even if you’ve changed medications, have seen other doctors, or had tests done at another medical facility. Chances are that your doctor has not received those test results, updated medication changes, or has not spoken to other physicians you’ve seen. Doctors and nurses are dealing with patient overload, are forced to see too many patients in too little time, and are multi-tasking simply to keep up.
It’s time to get involved in your medical care so you can prevent a medical error from happening to you.
Medication mistakes are the most common medical error and the easiest to prevent. According to the Institute of Medicine, 1.5 million people are harmed by medication errors every year. From prescribing to filling medications, any medical professional involved can make a mistake. Unfortunately, medication errors can happen to anyone.
10 tips to avoid medication errors
1. Know the names (brand and generic) and dosages of the medicines you are currently taking. Understand for which condition, illness, or symptom you take them. You’d be surprised how many people go by “the pink pill” or “the blue pill.”
2. Create a list of all your medications and their dosages, over-the-counter medications, herbs, and supplements. Include any allergies to medications. Carry this list with you in your smartphone or other electronic device or simply write them down on a sheet of paper. I keep mine on an app in my iPhone and on a sheet of paper folded in the slot next to my driver’s license in my wallet. You never know when your smartphone battery will lose its juice.
3. Bring your list of medications to every appointment with your medical providers. Be sure they have an updated list of your current medications and any drug allergies. If you have your list with you, your doctor won’t have to lasso the information from other physicians or pharmacies.
4. Ask your doctor for your new medications' names and dosages. Ask what it is for and how to take it (for example: with food or without, time of day, etc.). This way you can match what you’ve heard from your physician with what is given to you at your pharmacy. And always check the medicine, dosage, and amount you receive at your pharmacy. Pharmacies can make mistakes too.
5. Use one pharmacy. Many of us use more than one because it’s convenient, but that means that each pharmacy lacks complete information about your medications and they can’t check for drug interactions.
If you continue to use more than one pharmacy, give each a current list of your medications so they can input it into their system.
6. Ask questions. If a medication you receive looks unusual or unfamiliar, simply ask to speak to the pharmacist or medical provider and share your concern. No one will be offended if you are polite. They want to prevent medication errors too.
7. Use your pharmacist. Medicines are a pharmacist’s specialty. He or she is there to educate you about your medications, possible side effects, and to answer your questions.
8. If you use a mail-order pharmacy, be sure to check the medicines you receive by mail or delivery. They can come in different shapes and colors because the pharmacy may use different companies for generic medications. But you want to know it’s a different generic and not the wrong medication.
If you receive a medicine that looks different than what you are used to, call the mail-order pharmacy or simply bring the bottle to your local pharmacy and ask questions.
9.If you’re a patient in the hospital, more than likely you’ll be given new medications and possibly in various forms. Medication errors in hospitals happen with alarming frequency. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 770,000 people are injured or die each year in hospitals because of medication mistakes. Ask a loved one to get involved in your care. Request that he or she creates a list of your medications and dosages and oversees the medications you are given.
10. Get an advocate. If you are having trouble managing your medications, ask a loved one to help you organize them so you recognize which medication to take and when. Your pharmacist will also have creative strategies such as “blister packs,” seven-day organizers, and more.