Medication Mishaps Common, But You Can Avoid Them

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My kitchen looks like a war zone, with bits and pieces of honey cake scattered hither, thither, and yon. Apparently the recipe meant it when it said to put parchment paper in the bottom of the pan. Silly me thought that if I used coated cookware and sprayed it, the cake would slide out intact. And that the cats would leave the cake alone.

The cake broke into lots of pieces (and having a loaf pan fresh out of the oven fall off the side of the stove and hit the floor topside-down didn’t help). Then, after I gave up and headed to bed, the cats knocked the cookie sheet I had more cake cooling on onto the floor and cavorted in the nice, warm treats.

To my credit, at least I don’t make assumptions when I take medicines. Don’t, however, bank on others being as careful when they give you your meds: Maybe they didn’t put parchment paper in the bottom of the pan, either.

“Medicine errors are the most common health care mistakes,” says The Joint Commission (formerly the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations). And some of those mistakes are deadly.

Remember in September 2006 when some babies in the newborn intensive care unit at a well-respected hospital in Indianapolis were given adult doses of heparin, an anticoagulant medicine?

A year later, in California, it happened to three more babies: among them, actor Dennis Quaid’s twins. Also at a well-respected hospital. And, one year after that, 17 babies in a hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas, received doses of heparin 10 times higher than they should have received.

(Doesn’t anybody read labels?)

“Drug delivery errors are a big problem,” Les Funtleyder, a securities analyst who follows the health-care industry for the New York investment firm of Miller Tabak & Co., was quoted as saying in the Sept. 13, 2008, edition of the Indianapolis Star. “Unfortunately, this occurrence is more common than anyone would think.” (From as an FYI.)

So what do you do, either as a patient or as an advocate for somebody else? Ask questions. Lots of questions. Questions such as:

“Why do I need to take this medicine? What’s this medicine supposed to do? What’s the brand name? The generic name? Does it have any side effects? What are they? What should I do if I experience a side effect? I’d like the written information about this medicine.”

Say you’ve been taking a medicine for some time and the pharmacy gives you pills that look unfamiliar. Don’t just assume they’re a (or another) generic medicine. I take one medicine that seems to be a different color at every refill. It’s the same drug: Just made by different companies. The pharmacist has begun to put explanatory notes in with my pills.

If you’re in the hospital, ask about oral drugs they give you and read the bags holding intravenous medicines. Make sure it’s what you are supposed to be getting. Feel free to ask a lot of questions here, too.

And, speaking of IV medicines, ask how long it should take for the contents to run out. If it seems to be running too slowly or too fast, tell the nurse.

Starting a new medicine? Remind the doctor of your allergies and tell him about any negative reactions you’ve had to other medicines.

If you’re taking multiple medicines, make sure there are no potential interactions between any of them. Your doctor should check that, and your pharmacist can, too. My pharmacist calls my doctor if Doc sends in a prescription that could interact with another medicine I’m taking. Include vitamins, herbal supplements, and other over-the-counter drugs in the list of medicines you take. Also, when buying over-the-counter drugs, ask the pharmacist if what you are planning to buy will interact with any of the medicines you’re taking. My husband went to pick up a cold medicine for me once and the pharmacist told him that, with my medical history and the medicines I’m taking, the one he selected was not a good choice, and he recommended one that was. (That’s why I get all of my prescription and over-the-counter medicines at the same pharmacy.)

And, finally, read the prescription. If you can’t decipher it, the pharmacist probably can’t, either.

Those of us who have diabetes tend to take multiple drugs. It’s something we need to be careful about, because so many medicines look alike. Don’t forget to check your insulin vials, too, if you take more than one type. That could also be confusing, although probably not as much as in the Regular and NPH days, when both vials looked alike. In fact, I remember one evening when I mixed up my dosages and took way more Regular than I should have. Scary!

However, just a spoonful of sugar…

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