Recommendations for Patients to Prevent Medical Errors

Keep yourself safe with these tips from the Emily Jerry Foundation.

By Christopher S. Jerry, President and CEO of the Emily Jerry Foundation

Preventable medical error has been identified as being the third leading cause of death, behind heart disease and cancer, in the United States. Most of these medical errors occur as a result of inherent human error and all of the problems associated with today’s complex health care system. The following are a few tips that will help keep you safer. 

Be Engaged in Your Own Health Care

Being an active member of your health care team can help to lower the probability of a preventable medical error from occurring. This means not standing on the sidelines and being actively involved in every single decision regarding your health care.

When you have to visit the emergency room or make a trip to the hospital, it’s very important to not be afraid to politely ask your clinician questions every step of the way. Having your questions addressed and a better overall understanding of your recommended course of treatment, proposed procedures, and the basics of why different types of medications are being prescribed will help to ensure that everyone on your care team (i.e. physician specialists, nurses, etc.) are all on the same page. This helps to significantly lower the probability of human error from creeping into the equation during the course of your treatment while you are receiving health care.

Have a Dedicated Patient Advocate

When you, a family member, or other loved one, is scheduled to go into the hospital to receive treatment or undergo a medical procedure, it’s a good idea to have someone — preferably an immediate relative or close friend — who can be there to advocate for you. This person should be able to help address questions and communicate with your care team when you are compromised due to things like anesthesia, routine pain medications, or simply as a result of normal healing and recovery.

5 Ways for You to Avoid Medication Errors

Medication errors are a common cause of the preventable medical errors that occur. Unfortunately, medication errors can happen for a variety of reasons. The following are a few suggestions that will help improve medication safety during the course of your stay in the hospital, as well as after you return home.

1. Make sure all of your doctors, or physician specialists, are aware of every single medication you are currently taking. This includes not only prescription medications but also over-the-counter medications and dietary supplements like vitamins. herbs, and etc.

2. Never be afraid to bring all of your medications in a bag to your doctor’s appointments. This helps open a discussion with your doctor about any issues with your medications, potential drug interactions, and possible side effects that you may not have recognized, and is a great way to help you get better-quality care.

3. Always make absolutely certain that your doctor is aware of any potential allergies or adverse drug reactions you have had in the past with certain medications.

4. When you are prescribed a medication and you go to pick it up, make sure you truly understand the following:

  • What exactly is the medication being prescribed for?
  • How am I supposed to take the medication and for how long? 
  • What are the possible side effects and what should I do if I experience them while taking the medication?
  • Is the medication safe for me to take with the other medications I currently take, including over the counter medications, dietary supplements, vitamins, herbs, etc.? 
  • What types of food, drink, and activities should I avoid while taking this medication?

When you pick up your medications from the retail pharmacy, do not assume the prescribed medications, even those that you routinely take, are always correct. Double check your medications when you get home before you take them. There are a number of applications you can either download to your smartphone or utilize online, to confirm the medications in the prescription bottles are, in fact, exactly what your doctor prescribed. 

Do not hesitate to ask your pharmacist or doctor for clarification! Medication labels on prescription bottles can be very confusing. For example, if the directions say to take the medication four times a day, does that mean to take the medication every six hours, or to take the medication four times a day during waking hours?

5. Do your research. It is generally unknown, even by physicians, that many pharmacy technicians — who work under a licensed pharmacist — are responsible for filling many prescriptions at a drug store and mixing intravenous medications (IV) at a hospital. Lack of supervision and training can result in many medical errors, including ones that become fatal. There is variability in the law, on a state-by-state basis, as it relates to the training requirements and oversight of pharmacy technicians who have this very important scope of practice in the health care setting. For that reason, I recommend reviewing the requirements for your state using the Emily Jerry Foundation’s Pharmacy Technician Initiative & Interactive Scorecard. If you find that your state is lacking oversight of pharmacy technicians, I would recommend that you formally request that the facility, where you or your loved one is receiving care, to have a registered pharmacist prepare all IV medications during the course of your stay at the hospital.