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Minimising medication errors

One of the most common causes of adverse events in hospitals and at home are medication errors due to:

  • the clinician either prescribing the wrong medicine or failing to detect an interaction with another medicine you are taking
  • the pharmacist filling a prescription incorrectly
  • the nurse administering the medicine incorrectly
  • the patient taking the medicine incorrectly
  • doubling up on similar medications after discharge.

Medication Safety

To minimise your risk of suffering a medication error, you should:

  • keep a written record of the medications you take at home, including complementary and non-prescription medicines and inform hospital staff of them as soon as possible. Many pharmacists offer a service called a medication profile service that helps you keep a list of all of your medicines and why and how to take them. Check with your pharmacist as this is a good service to take advantage of, especially before you go into hospital and as soon as possible after you come home. It takes about 20 to 30 minutes and you’ll get a colour print out of your complete list of medicines to bring to hospital with you. Some pharmacists charge a small fee for this service.
  • ask your doctor what your new prescription medication is for, what the side effects or complications are and whether it’s safe to mix it with your other medications – or whether it’s meant to in fact replace your existing medicine
  • write down the medications you’re receiving in hospital and what time you normally get them, including intravenous (IV) fluids. If you don’t get your medications at the right time, if the IV fluids run too fast or slow or you are given different medications to those you have written down, ask your nurse before taking them.
  • tell hospital staff immediately if you feel unwell after taking medication
  • make sure you understand all of the instructions you’ve been given about your medications before you leave the hospital. This includes any instructions about whether you should continue to take the medications you were taking before going into hospital.
  • speak to your pharmacist about a dose administration aid service (DAA). This is a device that helps to reduce the likelihood of mixing up your medications, making dosage errors or forgetting to take your medication. Most pharmacists provide this service. It's particularly useful for people with several medicines and who may find it difficult to remember what to take and when. This is common for people with coronary artery disease as they often have other conditions.
  • speak to hospital staff about any medication that you believe you have been refused or if your medication is delayed
  • Get your medication from the same pharmacy every time so your pharmacist can keep a record of the medication you’re taking and alert you to any dangerous interactions. If you have had a patient medication profile service, make sure you get your medication list updated when there are changes to your medicines or doses.

Be Informed About Your Medicines

Each time you are prescribed a new medication you should ask your doctor or pharmacist for a Consumer Medicines Information (CMI) leaflet to read in your own time and to keep with your medical records for future reference. CMI leaflets are available for all prescription medicines and some non-prescription medications. If they’re unable to provide it, you can download it from the consumers page of the National Prescribing Service website at:

More information about medication safety can be obtained from your general practitioner, pharmacist or the Medicines Line, operated by Health Direct: 1300 633 424.

You can play an active role in ensuring you use your medications safely. Below is a list of questions to ask you healthcare provider each time a new medication is prescribed. If you’re in hospital you may choose to ask only those questions in bold, but before you are discharged ensure you have the answers to all questions.

1. What is this medication for?

  • Why am I using this medication and what improvement can I expect to get?
  • When will I start to see changes in my health?

2. How should I take the medication?

  • How much should I take?
  • What time of the day should I take it?
  • What should I do if I forget to take a dose?

3. When should I stop using any of my medications?

  • Do I have to finish all of the medication, or just use it until I feel better or keep using it for a long time?
  • When I start using this new medication should I stop using any of my others?

4. Are there any special instructions that I need to follow?

  • Are there any special instructions for using this medication eg do I take it before or after meals?
  • Do I have to use a special delivery method (puffer/spacer/patch/suppository)?
  • What is the correct way to use it?

5. Will there be any side effects?

  • What are the known or expected side effects of this medication?
  • How likely is it that I’ll suffer from them?
  • Are there any symptoms or signs that I should watch for?
  • What should I do if I suffer from a side effect?
  • Will the side effects stop after a short period?

6. Are there any lifestyle issues I need to know about?

  • Are there any medications or activities that I should avoid while taking this medication such as driving, contact sports or drinking alcohol?
  • Do I need to monitor my diet while I’m taking this medication?
  • Do I need to have blood tests done or monitor my blood levels while I’m taking this medication?
  • Are there any storage instructions for the medication?
  • Is there any other information I need to know?

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This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.

Last published 31 October 2011

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