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Tip to avoid medication errors


The medication use processes involving various stages and personnel. Every step involved in the process requires that the correct drug with a right dose, time and route of administration is given to the correct patient with the correct information. But when humans are involved, errors can happen. Most of the time, these errors do not cause any serious adverse outcomes. At very least it causes unnecessary discomfort or waste of money. Unfortunately, some errors may be life threatening.

The National Coordinating Council for Medication Error Reporting and Prevention (NCCMERP), United States defines medication errors as:

“A medication error is any preventable event that may cause or lead to inappropriate medication use or patient harm while the medication is in the control of the health care professional, patient or consumer.

Such events may be related to professional practice, health care products, procedures and systems, including prescribing, order communication, product labeling, packaging and nomenclature; compounding, dispensing, distribution, administration, education, monitoring and use”.

Preventing Medication Errors

Anyone involved in the medication use process can make errors. This may be due to ‘slips and lapses’ or not knowing the right thing to do. Good communication and relationship between all the personnel involved in the process play a vital role in preventing medication errors. These errors can also be prevented when both health care providers and patients are aware of the types of errors that can happen.

Both patients and caregivers have responsibilities to make sure that they understand the reasons for taking the medicine, how it looks like, how to take it and what to do if the result is not as expected. They must always double check the information of the medicine in order to avoid medication errors. Reading the medication label before each use is a very good practice to ensure the right drug and dose.

The following are ways that you can practice to avoid medication errors:

A.  Ask questions from your health care providers

The best and simple practice to prevent medication errors are just by asking questions and understanding the answers. Below are the questions that you can ask your health care providers to ensure the success of your drug therapy and avoid medication errors:

  • Make sure that you can read your prescription.
    If you don’t understand your prescription, ask your doctor or prescriber to:-

      • Print the name of the medicine
      • Print the directions for taking the medicine (These information are usually provided by the pharmacist during dispensing
  • Ask questions about your medicine from your doctor or pharmacist.
    As a patient or caregiver, it is important to understand the nature of the health problem and how the medicine will respond and what result can be expected from the medicine. You have to make sure that you know:-

      • How the medicine works
      • What side effects might occur and how long they might last
      • When you are expecting to get better
      • What action to take if the medicine does not show any signs of improvement or expected result
  • Discuss your medication with your pharmacist
    Discussing with your pharmacist will help to enhance your understanding about your medication. It also enables the pharmacist to screen your prescription for any errors that might occur. You have to make sure that you know:

    • What the medicine is for
    • How to take it
    • When to take it
    • How long to take it
    • Expiry date of the medicine

B.  Take your medications as directed

When taking medicines, you should strictly follow the directions given to you by your healthcare providers. The medicine that you take may not give you the expected result if it is not taken as instructed. If your doctor or other healthcare providers instruct you to take your medicine differently from the label directions, discuss with your pharmacist.

C.  Know your medicine

Knowing your medicine is one way that can save you from medication errors. You should be able to familiarize and identify your own medication. Many errors happened at home because patients are confused with what medicine to take, at what dose, how many tablets or capsules or at what time they should take.

Sometimes, patients accidently took the other family members’ or friends’ medicine due to the similar appearance of the medicine or it has a similar name or look-alike packaging. It is very important to recognize your medicines which can be very useful to prevent you from taking the wrong ones.

Your doctor or pharmacist may decide to substitute a brand-name medicine for a generic, one generic to another generic or a generic for a brand-name medicine. For this reason, it is advisable for you to double check. Make sure that you know:

  • What your medicine looks like. This includes the shape and colour
  • The common brand name and generic name of your medicines. Preferably learn the generic name or active ingredient as this can withdraw confusion when there’s a change in brands.

D.  Keep your medications as instructed

Some medicines look-alike and can cause confusion. To avoid this, always keep medications in their original containers. Keep all medications in a locked cabinet where children cannot reach them. Some medicines need to be kept in a particular condition, such as in the refrigerator or away from light. This is to prevent deterioration of the medicines.

Throw away all medications once they have reached their expiry dates. You can have a bad effect if you take certain medicines that have past the expiration date. While most medications will only lose their strength, some out-dated medicines can actually become toxic and make you sick.

E.  Make a list of your current and past medications and inform your doctor

Your doctor should be aware of, and keep a record of, all the medicines you are taking. This record should include over-the-counter drugs (such as vitamins and aspirin), laxatives, as well as the medicines that another specialist may have prescribed. This precaution can help to avoid dangerous drug combinations in which drugs can interact with each other to produce hazardous side-effects.

Your doctor needs to know about your past reactions to certain drugs. However, tolerance levels may change with age and as some people grow older, they may show greater sensitivity to medications such as painkillers or tranquilizers.


Everyone involved in the medication use process have roles to play in preventing medication errors. This includes caring healthcare providers and knowledgeable patients. All you have to do is to ask questions, understand and comply with the directions given, able to recognize your medicines, store the medicines as instructed and make a list of current and past medication to help you minimize medication errors.

Last reviewed : 23 April 2014
Writer : Mohd Azwan bin Mohd Zubir
Reviewer : Hazlin bt. Othman