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4 Common Prescription Medication Mistakes

Are you one of the millions of Americans who make dangerous mistakes with their medications? You can avoid that bitter pill with these simple strategies.

By Dana Sullivan Kilroy
Illustration of a person with pills over their mouthSerge Bloch

Your doctor writes a prescription; the pharmacist fills it; you take the medication and get better. That’s how it’s supposed to work. But in the real world, plenty can go wrong, and it regularly does: More than 1.5 million potentially dangerous drug mistakes occur every year, according to the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences. But with a little vigilance, you can make sure your medication leaves you healthier, not sicker. Here is a capsule review of the most common medication mistakes and how to properly take what’s prescribed to you. (Spoonful of sugar optional.)

Mistake No. 1: Assuming That the Drug You Take Home Is the One Your Doctor Prescribed

The fix: One out of every 20 prescriptions filled in a pharmacy has a mistake, according to statistics compiled by the Institute for Safe Medication Practices (ISMP), a nonprofit organization based in Horsham, Pennsylvania, that tracks medication errors. The pharmacist may choose the wrong product from a drop-down menu or misread the name of the drug on the prescription or on the bottle he is dispensing from. For example, your doctor may prescribe Lamisil for a nail infection but you receive Lamictal, a drug used to treat seizures. (See “Be on the Lookout for Look-Alikes,” on page 3, for other common Rx mix-ups.)

Write down the name and the dose of everything your doctor prescribes and know what each one is for. (And it can’t hurt to ask how to pronounce the names.) Then, at the pharmacy, double-check that you have the correct medications. If you’re taking a generic drug, check with the pharmacist that it’s the right one.

Mistake No. 2: Not Reading or Following the Instructions on the Drug’s Label and the FDA Leaflet

The fix: It’s “exceptionally rare” for someone to read the pamphlet that comes with a prescription medication, says Albert W. Wu, M.D., the director of the Center for Health Services and Outcomes Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in Baltimore. No surprise—it is usually cluttered with chemistry-major language and not nearly as entertaining as Facebook. But it contains vital information that’s worth the slog.

Before you leave the counter, get a Cliffsnotes summary from the pharmacist. Ask her to go over the most important things you need to know, including the correct dosage, whether to take the medication with or without food, and if you should always use it at a certain time of day, says Allen Vaida, a pharmacist and the executive vice president of the ISMP. Find out about common side effects, whether it’s OK to drink alcohol, and what to do if you forget to take a dose. If the drug is administered via a patch, an inhaler, or some other device, ask for a demonstration.


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