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Preventing Prescription Drug Errors (Part I)

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A drug prescription is an order, provided by your doctor, so that a pharmacist has legal permission to sell or provide you with a drug to improve or maintain your health. Most often we are handed a small piece of paper that contains that order at the doctor's office and expected to take that prescription to the pharmacy.

Unfortunately, sometimes what the doctor writes is illegible, and sometimes mistakes are made. Drug names are easily mixed up because drug names can be so similar to other drug names. Unwary patients have gotten sicker and died from prescription errors made by anyone from the doctor to the nurse to the filling pharmacist -- to ourselves when we misunderstand the directions.

Most of us give little or no thought to our prescriptions. The doctor hands it over. We give it to the pharmacist or mail it off to the mail order company. The drug is returned to us. We begin to take the drug.

But what if one of those steps didn't work the way it should?

Studies have shown that about one-in-ten errors are made in the prescribing and dispensing of prescriptions. Further, even though it was assumed that electronic prescribing would cut error rates, that has not turned out to be the case. A recent study showed that as many (or more) mistakes are made with CPOE (computer prescription order entry) as with hand-written prescription orders, an average of 12 percent.

As smart patients, we know we need to be asking questions. Our first questions should be asked of our doctors, right there in the exam room, before we leave. We need to be sure we are being prescribed the right drug in the right dose for the right amount of time.

Here are some questions to ask your doctor:

  • Why did your doctor prescribe that drug?
  • What form does the drug come in? (liquid? Tablets?)
  • Is there an acceptable generic version?
  • How much and how often should you take it?
  • Should it be taken with, or without, food?
  • Are there any foods or beverages you should avoid while taking the medication? (Some antibiotics are useless if taken with milk, and many drugs interact negatively with alcohol.)
  • Are there any activities you should avoid? (Driving can be dangerous if the drug makes you drowsy.)
  • How long should you take the drug? (And does that mean you'll need refills?)
  • What side effects might you expect?
  • What side effects are problematic, meaning, you should contact your doctor's office if you experience them?
  • In some doctor's offices, you aren't given the actual prescription slip until you pay your co-pay and check out. Once you are handed the slip of paper, be sure it's your name and your identification on that slip. It's easy to mix up prescription forms between patients at that point. You want to be sure the prescription slip you're given is for you.

    But these step's comprise only one half of your responsibility in making sure you're staying prescription-drug safe. Look for part II for the steps you'll want to take when you pick up your drug at the pharmacy, or order it by mail.

    ClinicalAdvisor.com-Errors seen in 12% of computerized Rxs. Web. 17 Aug. 2011. http://www.clinicaladvisor.com

    Getting a Prescription. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality-U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Web. 17 Aug. 2011. http://www.ahrq.gov/questionsaretheanswer/level3col_1.asp?nav=3colnav05&content=05_0_prescription

    Reviewed August 18, 2011
    by Michele Blacksberg R.N.
    Edited by Jody Smith

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    December 15, 2011 - 4:23am
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    We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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