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Medication errors: why they happen and what you can do


Written by:
Wendy Nixson
Practice Leader | Special Counsel - Medical Law

The advancements in medication over the past decades are nothing short of incredible and can afford many people the chance to live a more normal life. Every medication carries its own risks and side effects, therefore it is essential to get the prescription, dispensing and usage right to avoid potentially serious consequences.

Medication errors have been estimated to cost the Australian health care system around $1.2 billion per year, with 250,000 hospital admissions each year related to medication problems. Of these hospital admissions, studies indicate that between 50% and 75% are potentially preventable.

What is a medication error?

A medication error occurs when the incorrect type or dose of medication is given, or if the medication is given at the wrong time.

In 2017, Brisbane hosted a World Health Organization global programme to strategise how to reduce medication errors by 50% in 5 years across the globe. The actions discussed will seek to improve each stage of the medication process; including prescribing, dispensing, administering, monitoring and use.

Common causes of medication errors

There are a number of potential reasons for a medication error; from the way it is prescribed, the way it is dispensed and even the unique characteristics of the person who is taking the medication. Some of the common causes of medication errors include:

  • Health care professionals: the professional may lack sufficient training and/or knowledge, have poor communication with other medical professionals regarding their shared patient, or experience poor physical and/or emotional wellbeing themselves that has an effect on their work.
  • Patients: literacy and language barriers, or complexities of the patient’s medical condition (for example their mental capacity or the number of different medications an individual may be prescribed) can affect their ability to take their medication correctly.
  • Children: kids are unfortunately at a higher risk of medication errors due to requiring a different dosage to adults.
  • Health care work environment: workload/time pressures, distractions and interruptions, insufficient protocols and resources can all negatively impact a medical professional’s ability to correctly assess their patient’s condition and prescribe the appropriate medication.
  • Medicines: labelling, naming and packaging – many drugs have similar names or look alike.

Case study: Mr Jones

Mr Jones* was taking two types of medication for a minor heart condition. He went to the pharmacy to fill the script for his medication as he was starting to run low. Unbeknownst to Mr Jones, the pharmacist put the labels on the wrong bottles, which meant Mr Jones took the incorrect dose of each medication for three weeks until he collapsed. Mr Jones suffered a stroke because the incorrect dosage of his medications lowered his blood pressure and heart rate to dangerous levels.

Mr Jones suffered irreparable harm as a result of the medication error. He now has weakness down one side of his body which affects his balance and means he cannot look after himself, his property or participate in work and recreational activities like he used to.

*name changed for anonymity

Medication error – what to do next

First, it is vital that you seek medical help. If you have been incorrectly prescribed a medication or have taken a medication out of routine, your doctor is the best person to assist you. Taking the wrong medication or an incorrect dose can cause considerable harm, so it is imperative to seek advice and/or treatment as soon as possible.

If you or your loved one has been impacted by a medication error that was the result of someone else’s actions, you can make a complaint to your state’s Health Ombudsman or talk to a specialist lawyer about your options. Whilst compensation cannot restore your health, it can help to provide you with services and funding that mean you can lead a better quality of life with as much independence as possible.

How to prevent medication errors

There are many ways you can protect yourself (or your loved one) from a potential medication error:

  • Understanding your (or your loved one’s) medications: make sure you know the medication’s brand name or generic name; know what the prescribed dose is and how long you should be taking the medication; find out what the medication is supposed to do, what to do if you miss a dose or accidentally take too much. Ensure you are aware of the potential side effects, if this medication interacts with other medication you’re on or if there are foods/drinks/substances/activities you should be avoiding.
  • Ask your doctor to print you (or digitally send you) a list of your medications along with the prescribed dosage instructions
  • Keep a record of any medications you’re allergic to or that have previously caused issues for you: this is especially helpful for your treating medical professionals or if you are admitted to hospital.
  • Administer your medication in the dose and manner you have been advised: ensure you are using the appropriate dosage device (such as an oral syringe instead of a teaspoon) and don’t chew, cut or crush medication if you haven’t been advised to (as this can change the way your body absorbs the medication).
  • Store your medication appropriately: this includes keeping your medication in its original, labelled container, or arranging for your pharmacist to provide you with a medication dispenser (such as a Webster-pak) that organises your medication by day and time.
  • Save the information sheets that come with your medication as these usually contain vital information such as how the medication works, potential side effects and what to do in case of a medication error.

Shine Lawyers – we’re here to help

If you or your loved one has suffered as the result of a medication error, you may be able to make a claim for compensation. Our team of medical law experts can help you to understand your legal rights and entitlements and help you to lodge a claim. Get in touch today for an obligation-free consultation.

Written by Wendy Nixson. Last modified: September 2, 2020.

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