Understanding Pharmacy Patient Safety By Chronis Manolis; Vice President, Pharmacy UPMC Health Plan

At first glance, you might be inclined to take the concept of “patient safety” for granted. A healthcare “patient” is in need of care; that he or she would be safe while receiving that care is something many people simply assume will be the case.

Medical errors can occur in a number of obvious places such as hospitals, clinics, and outpatient surgery centers. But they can also occur in pharmacies or, even in a patient’s home.

When someone needs specific medicines to treat an illness that person has to be able to trust that the medicine he or she is receiving is the correct medicine and that it will be administered correctly.  To ensure safety, patients need to understand the potential for danger, how danger occurs, and how danger can be avoided.   

According to the Institute of Medicine – an independent, nonprofit organization – at least 1.5 million Americans are sickened, injured, or killed each year by medication errors. The extra cost related to preventable errors has been conservatively estimated at $3.5 billion a year and does not include lost wages, decreased productivity, and additional health care costs.

Many medication errors are largely preventable. By improving patient education and putting the right programs in place, these errors can be reduced.

Three Categories of Medication Errors

There are three general categories of medication errors: those related to prescribing a medication, those related to the dispensing of a medication at a pharmacy, and those related to the use of a medication. For each category, steps can be taken by providers and patients to limit the occurrence of errors.

Prescribing – A physician needs to have complete medical information about the patient when determining appropriate medications to treat a particular condition and that will also not be harmful. This information includes all medications the patient is taking, all laboratory test results, other physicians involved in the patient’s treatment, any past hospitalizations, and any drug allergies the patient may have. It is critical that patients have their complete personal medical history and treatment information and to make sure that this information is passed on to their physician.

Dispensing – Errors occur when patients receive a medication that was not intended to be given by the prescriber. Several factors contribute to this type of error. These include: hard-to-read prescriptions, medications that have similar names or appearances, patients who have the same name, and any communication or language barriers that may exist.

Usage Patients may use a medication incorrectly or in error. Often, patients do not understand which medications are to be taken, when to take the medication, what condition the medication is for, the importance of each medication, which medications interact with each other, or how to properly use the medications.

It Starts With Knowledge

The path to better patient safety begins with increased knowledge on the part of the patient. Understanding your condition and how it is being treated is an important first step.

You can begin by keeping a list of all the medications you take, including over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, and herbs, and share this information with your physician. You should also always tell your doctor about any allergies or adverse reactions you have ever had to medication.

It is very important that you understand everything about your medications. This includes why you are taking them, what side effects they may cause, how long you need to take them and whether this medicine can be taken in conjunction with other medicines or supplements, such as herbs.   

Ways to Reduce Errors

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you have doubts or concerns.
  • Understand your role in your care.
  • Ask for information about your medicines in terms you can understand.
  • When your doctor writes a prescription make sure you can read it.
  • Ask for written information about the side effects of your medicine.
  • If you have any questions about the directions on the label of a prescribed medicine, ask them.
  • Ask your pharmacist for the best device to measure your liquid medicine. Research shows that many people do not understand the right way to measure liquid medicines.