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Hospitals: How To Avoid Infection & Medical Error

How To Watch For Medication And Other Errors

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Medication errors are among the most common medical errors made in the hospital setting. 

While some errors are simply out of your hands, you can personally take the following steps to avoid medication errors:

  • Take a list of all your medications to the hospital.
    • The list should include all prescription, over-the-counter (OTC), natural / herbs, and alternative / complementary drugs. 
    • Be certain to include notes about all allergies and adverse reactions you may have experienced with any medication. See List of Medications for more information about preparing the medication list.
  • Supply a copy of your medications list to each of your treating doctors, including your attending doctor, surgeon and anesthesiologist.
    • To reduce the chance of error, do not rely on your doctors to communicate this information to each other. It is best if you have one doctor who is in charge of coordinating your care with the other doctors. If there isn't one, choose and ask the person if that is okay. If so, inform all the other doctors to keep the doctor up to date.
    • Inform your doctors of any additional medical diagnosis you may have. For example, if you have a history of stomach ulcers or liver disease.
  • Ask your doctor in advance for the name and purpose of every drug you are to receive. It may be useful to ask for a physical description of the drug, including color, shape, and size. Make a list of the drugs. If you know what to expect you will feel more confident asking questions. 
  • Before any medication is adminstered:
    • Insist that the person giving you the medication identify you each time you receive a medication. The person should either state your name or check your hospital identification bracelet. This will help insure that you are not given a medication intended for someone else, or a drug for which you have a known allergy.
    • Ask the name of the drug and its purpose. Ask whether there are special instructions -- such as a drug that should only be taken with food. These questions will keep you better informed and will require the person giving you the drug to double-check what you are being given.
    • If a medication that looks different than what you are used to taking, or is different than the description you were given, speak up. Perhaps it is a generic version, or the brand or dosage has been changed, or maybe someone has made a mistake. It is always better to be safe than sorry.
  • Before receiving any test or procedure, ask if it includes the use of dyes or medicines. Remind the doctor or nurse if you have any allergies.
  • If you are on an intravenous (IV) infusion medical pump, ask if the hospital has a "smart pump." Regular pumps can be defective or malfunction. A smart pump performs a "test of reasonableness" to check that programming is within pre-established institutional limits before infusion can begin.
  • If you are allergic to particular medications such as penicillin, it can't hurt to write a note and tape it above your bed so anyone about to give you a drug sees it.

NOTE: Details that matter can get lost during a transition from one person, facility or department to another. This includes hospital shift change where someone has to catch up on what has been going on. The National Patient Safety Foundation says many situations become clearer with just three key questions: What is my main problem? What do I need to do? Why is it important for me to do this?

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