Consumer Reports Insights

Drug errors are dangerous but preventable

(Marc Rosenthal)
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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

At least 1.5 million serious, preventable drug errors occur in the United States each year.

One cause is getting the wrong medicine, a drug other than the one that was prescribed. Those potentially lethal mix-ups sometimes occur when one drug name is similar to another. Think Celebrex vs. Celexa, for example, or Zantac vs. Zyrtec. Look-alike medicine labels, sloppily phoned-in drug orders and poor physician penmanship make the problem worse.

Errors can happen even when you do get the right drug. In some cases a new drug may interact with food or other medications you take. Or you might not take it properly.

Here are steps you can take to make sure you get the right drugs and take them properly.

In the doctor's office

Safe drug use should start in your doctor's office with a "brown bag" review. Bring all your medicine, including over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, to your primary doctor once or twice a year to check for those you no longer need, those that can be taken at a lower dose, those that duplicate other medications you take, or those that interact with one another in potentially dangerous ways. In addition:

-- Be wary of free samples. They may not give you the best drug for your condition, just the one a company representative left at your doctor's office. Moreover, they're the more expensive brand-name versions.

-- Make sure you can read any new prescription. If you can't, a pharmacist might not be able to, either.

-- Voice concerns. If you think you're having unpleasant side effects, don't stop taking the drug, but ask your doctor if you can switch to a different medicine or adjust the dose.

At the pharmacy

Going to just one pharmacy lowers the risk of errors. The pharmacist there can track all the prescription and OTC drugs you take and record your drug allergies and chronic health problems. That allows the pharmacist to look for potentially dangerous interactions or inappropriate medications. Also:

-- Make sure the drug is for you. When you get your prescription, open the bag to see if your name is on the container.

-- Compare the label with what you were expecting. If the drug name, dosage or purpose differ, ask why.

-- Compare refills to older prescriptions. Make sure the color, markings, shape and size of the pills are the same as the originals.

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