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How to Avoid Dangerous Medication Errors

Drug-related hospital admissions double among older Americans

As an active health care consumer, talk with your doctor about your medications, how they work, and potential side effects. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Many medication errors are discovered by patients.

To reduce your chances of complications from medicine, use this checklist:

  • Bring a list or a bag with all your medicines when you go to your doctor's office, the pharmacy or the hospital. Include all prescription and over-the-counter medicines, vitamins and herbal supplements. Remind your doctor and pharmacist if you are allergic to any medicines.
  • Ask questions. Ask your doctor or pharmacist to use plain language. It may also help to write down the answers or bring a friend or relative with you.
  • Make sure your medicine is what the doctor ordered. Many drugs look alike and have names that sound alike. Check with your doctor or pharmacist to be sure you have the right medicine. If you are getting a refill and the medicine looks different, ask the pharmacist about it.
  • Learn how to take medicine correctly. Read the directions on the label and other paperwork you get with your medicine. Medicine labels can be hard to understand. Ask your pharmacist or doctor to explain anything you do not understand. Are there other medicines, foods or activities (such as driving, drinking alcohol or using tobacco) that you should avoid while using the medicine? For example, ask if "four doses daily" means taking a dose exactly every six hours or just during regular waking hours. Ask what "take as needed" really means.
  • Find out about possible side effects. Many drugs have side effects. Some side effects may bother you at first but will get better later. Others may be serious. If a side effect does not get better, talk to your doctor. You may need a different dose or a different medicine.

 

Make your medicines work for you — not against you. By taking steps to get the best results from your medicines, you can help prevent problems.

I'm Dr. Carolyn Clancy, and that's my advice on how to navigate the health care system.

Carolyn M. Clancy, a general internist and researcher, is an expert in engaging consumers in their health care. She is the director of the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

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