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Preventing Medication Errors

If taken incorrectly, medications can cause serious side effects and even death. Don’t let your loved one fall victim to a medication error. By helping her keep track of both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, you can ensure her safety and well-being.

See also: Handling a Hospitalization.

What to Do
On average, older people take four prescription drugs per day. That’s in addition to OTC  medications, vitamins and supplements. It’s no wonder they sometimes forget to take their pills, or they accidentally take them twice in one day. Plus, the more medications a person takes, the greater the risk for dangerous drug interactions.

You can help prevent common medication errors like these by taking a few simple steps.

1) Start by helping your loved one create a list of all the medications (including vitamins and supplements) she’s taking. Use our Personal Medication Record template. For each medication, include the dosage and reason for use.

2) Once you’ve completed the list, make a few copies: one to post on your loved one’s refrigerator, one for your records and one each for your loved one’s pharmacist and doctors. Update the list each time your loved one starts or stops taking a medication or changes the dosage.

3) Carefully read the written information that came with each prescription or OTC drug. Pay attention to storage guidelines (most meds should be kept in a cool, dry place) and potential drug interactions. Make sure that your loved one takes her medications correctly, and note any precautions and possible side effects on the medication list.

4)  Discard any drugs that have expired or are no longer needed. Don’t flush them down the toilet, though, as they can end up in our waterways. Ask your pharmacist how to dispose of them properly. The FDA has a consumer guide online.

5) Pick up a weekly pill organizer at your local drugstore. Most cost about $10. Fill the organizer once per week to help your loved one remember to take her medications — and to prevent her from taking too much.

Doctors’ Orders
The next time your loved one sees her doctor, she should give him or her an updated medication list. That way, her physician knows what other health professionals have prescribed. Also tell the doctor about any known drug allergies or negative reactions to drugs taken in the past.

If her doctor writes a new prescription or provides a drug sample, ask the following questions:

  • What is the name of the drug?
  • What will the medication do?
  • What is the proper dosage?
  • How, when and for how long should the drug be taken?
  • How will we know if it’s working?
  • Are there risks or side effects associated with this drug?
  • Should we worry about drug interactions?
  • Is there a generic version or a less-expensive medication that will treat the same condition?

Take notes, and read them back to the doctor to make sure that you’ve recorded the details correctly.

Next: Communicating with health care providers»

Rx for Success
When you fill a new prescription, also give the pharmacist a copy of your loved one’s medication list. The pharmacy may keep an electronic copy of this list. The next time you’re there, you can ask for a printout to make sure that the information is up-to-date.

Check that the prescription the pharmacist gives you has the same name and instructions that the doctor provided. Doctors have notoriously bad handwriting, so you want to make sure that the pharmacist was able to read the prescription properly.

If you have any questions about the medication you’ve just received, ask the pharmacist. You might double-check how to take the drug and ask about possible interactions with food, alcohol and other medications.

Going the Distance
If you’re caring for your loved one long distance, you may not be able to attend every doctor appointment, pick up every prescription and monitor daily pill taking. But you still can maintain a dialogue with your loved one’s health care providers and pay attention to possible side effects. Don’t hesitate to raise concerns and ask questions.

If you’ve hired a geriatric care manager or home health aide, ask that person to follow the guidelines outlined here and to keep detailed records that he or she can share with you on a regular basis.

For more tips to prevent medication errors, visit the Institute for Safe Medication Practices website.

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