Medication error FAQ: What You Need to Know


According to a study from Johns Hopkins University, medication errors may possibly be the third-ranking cause of death in the United States. While there have been some that say that the Hopkins study is inaccurate, these same critics admit that such errors are indeed a significant problem.

This medication error FAQ, from the law firm of Gatti, Keltner, Bienvenu, & Montesi, PLC, will answer some of the questions you might have concerning this topic.Q. What is a medication error?

A. The Food and Drug Administration defines a medication error as “… any preventable event that may cause or lead to inappropriate medication use or patient harm while the medication is in the control of the health care professional, patient, or consumer…” Medication errors, if they can be documented, are usually considered evidence of malpractice.

Q. How common are medication errors?

A. The actual number of medication errors is unknown since very few healthcare workers are going to report such errors if they themselves made the error. Also, there are no requirements that mandate anything other than a significant (“serious or life-threatening”) be reported to anyone other than the patient’s physician. It is easier to say that medication errors are a significant problem in the American healthcare industry.

Q. Can medication errors harm someone?

A. Yes. Medications that may be harmless when given to one patient may not mix well with another medication if given to the wrong patient. Also, the wrong strength of a medication that has been ordered can be just as deadly as an equivalent dose of poison. Medication errors can also be mistaken for a medical condition that the patient does not actually have and, if the supposed condition is treated, could be far more dangerous than the medication error itself. In these cases, an act of malpractice has occurred.

Q. Is an allergic reaction a medication error?

A. No. Reactions are only a medication error if a patient was given a medication to which they are allergic by accident AND the allergy was documented in the patient’s medical record. The mere fact that an “unexpected” reaction occurred is not considered an error if the correct medication was given to the correct patient and thus does not constitute malpractice.

Q. What can cause a medication error?

A. The most common cause of a medication error is the failure to confirm the patient’s identity before administering the medication. Another common cause is failing to check the medication’s label or other such information.

Q. Can medication errors be prevented?

A. Probably not. Although medication records and procedures are constantly improving, it will be impossible to completely remove the human factor from the process of administering medications. Until a 100% foolproof method of dispensing medications is developed, errors will continue to happen.

Q. What should I do if I think that someone was harmed by a medication error?

A. It is usually difficult for someone who outside the health care industry to determine what was, or wasn’t, the result of a medication error. If someone suspects that a medication error may have occurred, it is probably best to discuss the matter with a healthcare worker from outside the organization where the suspected error occurred or with an attorney experienced in medical malpractice law.