Stacey Colino

Prevent Deadly Medication Mistakes

Every year, more than 1.5 million people become ill due to medication mistakes -- and many of these errors are preventable, according to the Institute of Medicine. What's more, a recent study by researchers at the University of California at San Diego showed that fatal medication errors inside medical institutions spike during the summer, which researchers blame in part on the annual influx of medical school graduates who start their residencies every July.

"The problem of medication errors is a bigger issue than people would like to believe," says Jack Fincham, who has a doctorate in social and administrative pharmacy, is a professor of pharmacy practice and administration at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and is the author of Everyday Guide to Managing Your Medicines. "In our health-care system, everything is geared toward speed and convenience, but the most important part of preventing medication errors is the role of the individual patient."

Indeed, there's plenty that you, as a patient, can do to protect yourself from medication mistakes. Here are the top five:

1. Tell your doctor about any bad reactions you've had to drugs in the past.

Describe exactly what happened so the doctor can tell if it's an allergic reaction, a side effect or drug intolerance. This way you can avoid a repeat experience or a potential reaction to another drug in the same class.

2. Keep a list of all medications and dietary supplements you take and the doses.

This should include all prescription and over-the-counter drugs as well as vitamins, minerals, herbs and anything else you take -- whether it's regularly or occasionally. Bring the list with you to the doctor and pharmacy and ask if there's any potential for dangerous interactions or unpleasant side effects, advises Darrell Hulisz, a clinical pharmacist who holds a doctorate in pharmacy and is an associate professor of family medicine at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.

3. Know exactly what medication you're getting.

Once your doctor prescribes a drug, find out:

- What it's called

- What it's for

- Why you're taking it

- What it's expected to do

- How soon the effects will kick in

- What side effects might occur

"Don't be afraid to ask questions until you get an answer that makes sense to you," says Fincham. "That's not a sign of weakness; it's a sign of an intelligent patient."

4. Make sure you understand how to take the drug.

"Sometimes there isn't any discussion about how to take a drug," says Hulisz. "Often, it's because physicians think patients are going to get all of this info at the pharmacy, and the pharmacists often assume doctors have gone over everything." So before you leave the doctor's office or pharmacy, ask:

- When to take the drug

- How often to take it

- What to do if you miss a dose

- Whether you should take it with food or on an empty stomach (meaning an hour before, or two hours after, a meal)

- Whether there are any foods you should avoid while taking it

5. Be alert to look-alike and sound-alike meds.

Lots of drugs have similar names, and a doctor's scrawl is often hard to decipher. So Zantac sometimes gets mixed up with Xanax, Prilosec may be confused with Primacor, and instead of Prozac you end up with Plavix. To avoid dangerous dispensing errors, "write down both the trade name and the generic name of the drug you should be taking, so you can double-check that that's what you're getting at the pharmacy," advises Hulisz.

Don't put yourself at risk for harmful medication mistakes. By taking these precautions, you'll boost your odds of sidestepping drug errors -- and ensure that the medications you take will make you better, not worse.

Stacey Colino has written for The Washington Post's health section and many national magazines, including Newsweek, Real Simple, Woman's Day, SELF, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Parenting, Sports Illustrated and Ladies' Home Journal.


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Health - Prevent Deadly Medication Mistakes