How to avoid making medicine mistakes

These five steps will help you to avoid making medicine errors.

Doctor hand working with modern medicine symbols

Have you ever taken the wrong medicine? How about a wrong dose? Or have you ever doubled up because you were taking two medicines that were exactly the same but didn’t realise? Medical errors can be made both by health professionals and us, the ‘lay public’.

Since we all need to take responsibility for our own health, here are five steps that will help you to avoid making medicine errors.

1. Ask questions

Ask your doctor or pharmacist about your medicine. If you’re unsure about why you’re taking a medicine, keep pressing for answers until you understand the basics. The more you know about your medicine – why you’re taking it, how to take it, when to take it, etc. – the less likely an error will be made by you and your health professional.

NPS MedicineWise has a good list of questions that you can use if you’re unsure about what to ask.

2. Know it’s a medicine

Medicines aren’t just prescription medicines. They also include over-the-counter medicines from a pharmacy, supermarket or other store, as well as herbal remedies, vitamins and other supplements. Just because a medicine is not available on prescription, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily safe to take. So always be guided by a health professional before you take something, especially for the very first time.

3. Know the active ingredient

Most medicines have two names: the active ingredient and the brand name. The active ingredient name is the name of the chemical that makes the medicine work. The brand name is the name given to the medicine by its manufacturer.

The concern is that if you don’t know the name of the active ingredient you may end up taking a double dose, which can happen if you have two packages with different brand names but the same active ingredient. If your pharmacist offers you an alternative brand of a prescription medicine, it will work the same way as your usual medicine – so don’t double up if you have any usual medicine remaining.

You will find the active ingredient listed on the medicine’s packaging (usually in much smaller writing than the brand name), as well as on the white label that the pharmacist sticks onto the packaging of your medicine. On the pharmacist label, the active ingredient is usually mentioned just under the brand name.

4. Follow instructions, but be aware

By following steps 1–3, you should have the right medicine on hand with the correctly prescribed dose. So follow the instructions from your doctor or pharmacist, and read the labels and packaging of your medicines carefully. If something doesn’t match up, speak up. It will help you to pick up any mistakes.

Keep track of all your medicines

This is about medicine management. It’s best to keep your medicines and prescriptions, including repeats, all in the one place (unless they have special storage instructions, such as keep in the fridge).

If you have many medicines to take, it can help to keep a medicines list and/or use a pill organiser, such as a dossette box. Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist can help you fill in the list and box. If you have made a list, always keep it on you, especially on visits to your doctor, pharmacist or to the hospital. Here’s how you can create a medicines list.

You can also get more detailed information  about your medicine from its consumer medicine information (CMI) leaflet, which is available for prescription- and pharmacist-only medicines. Ask your pharmacist for a copy, or print one from the NPS MedicineWise or myDr websites.

Read more at NPS MedicineWise.

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Reducing medication errors





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