How to Avoid Common Medication Errors

by Millennium Physician Group

April 1 - 7 Was National Medication Safety Week

older aged couple going through their medications at home

It’s important to learn how to use your medicines safely to avoid unwanted side effects and interactions – especially as you age. The older you get, the more likely you are to be taking additional medicines (prescription and over-the-counter) which can increase your chance of having harmful side effects and interactions. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, each year in the United States 7,000 to 9,000 people die as a result of a medication error. And the FDA receives more than 100,000 reports every year related to medication errors. Medication errors can occur in pharmacies, hospitals, and at home, so everyone, no matter your age, could use a reminder that we all need to be more aware of the proper use and storage of the medications we take.  

The Five Rights

If you’re hospitalized or in a healthcare facility, to avoid errors make sure your nurse double checks your wristband when bringing your medicine. Know that healthcare professionals are taught to observe the “five rights” of medication use:

  • the right patient
  • the right drug
  • the right time
  • the right dose
  • the right route 

These verification measures are just one level of safety in place to avoid medication errors. There are several things you can do yourself, at home, and on a regular basis to ensure medication safety: 

  •  Keep an up-to-date list of all your current medications and supplements and understand why you take each one. 
  • It’s a good idea to list both the generic and trade name of each prescription. 
  • Store all your medications in their original containers in a cool dry place, such as a dresser drawer, closet shelf, or kitchen cabinet. Storing medicine in a bathroom cabinet can expose the medicine to humidity and moisture that can cause the medicine to be less effective.  
  • Discard your medications after the expiration date listed on the prescription label or container. 
  • Read the labels carefully to make sure you are taking your medicine exactly the way your doctor recommends, and that the medication is what your doctor prescribed.  
  • Generic medications can vary in size, shape, and color from brand to brand, so check with your pharmacist if your medicine looks different.  
  • Always read the information provided with your prescription to familiarize yourself with the reason you’re taking it, its risks, benefits, and side effects. 
  • Never share your medication with anyone else. 

The FDA agrees consumers can play an important role in reducing medication errors.  Here are some of the FDA’s drug safety tips: 

  • See the Institute for Safe Medical Practice’s (ISMP’s) consumer web page, for helpful tools and resources to protect yourself from medication errors.
  • Ask if the medicine needs to be kept in the refrigerator. 
  • Check the container’s label every time you take a drug. This is especially important if you are taking several drugs because it will lower your risk of accidentally taking the wrong medicine. 
  • If you are having trouble keeping multiple medications straight, ask your doctor or pharmacist about helpful aids. 
  • Be aware of the risk of drug/drug or drug/food interactions. 

Spring Clean Your Medication Cabinet

The expiration date is the date a medicine should be discarded, and now is a great time to check if any of your medicines should be discarded because they are expired or no longer needed. On your prescription bottles, the label will often tell you when the medicine should be discarded. On over-the-counter medicines the expiration date is often printed somewhere on the label. Look for the letters “EXP” stamped on the outer carton, the bottom of the bottle, or the crimp of a tube. For medicines without an expiration date or if you can’t find the expiration date it is best to toss it, unless you know you purchased it within the past year.  

Medicines that you no longer need or have expired should be disposed of properly. According to the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, you should take them to a drug take back location. If there isn’t a location near you, mix the medicine with an undesirable substance (used coffee grounds, dirt, or cat litter) and put them in a sealable plastic bag. Then place the sealed bag in your trash. There are some medicines that can be safely flushed down the toilet. For complete instructions on disposing unused medicine, go to The FDA Guide for Disposal of Unused Medicines. 

 If you’re ever in doubt or have questions about taking or disposing of your medications, ask your pharmacist or other healthcare provider.  

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