How to Avoid Becoming a Victim of Medical Errors

FACT – In the past 12 years, the FDA has received more than 95,000 reports of medication errors. These are only the mediation errors that are both discovered AND reported.

FACT – One in seven Medicare patients in hospitals experience a medical error.

FACT – There is an approximate 98,000 deaths to due medical errors in the United States in a year.*

FACT – The number of counterfeit medications entering the supply chain is increasing.

Medical Error

According to the FDA, a medical error is “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. Such events may be related to professional practice, health care products, procedures, and systems, including prescribing; order communication; product labeling, packaging, and nomenclature; compounding; dispensing; distribution; administration; education; monitoring; and use.” A medical error can be made by a nurse, doctor, hospital, or pharmacist; the error can vary from missing a dose of a prescription to taking the wrong prescription to having the wrong procedure done. A medical error could add a day to a hospital stay or it could result in serious complications, even death.

Counterfeit Drugs

Now let’s take a look at a second FDA definition of interest “counterfeit drugs.” “U.S. law defines counterfeit drugs as those sold under a product name without proper authorization. Counterfeiting can apply to both brand name and generic products, where the identity of the source is mislabeled in a way that suggests that it is the authentic approved product. Counterfeit products may include product without the active ingredient, with an insufficient or excessive quantity of the active ingredient, with the wrong active ingredient, or with fake packaging.” As consumers you are faced with two supply chain issues. The first is your doctor or nurse giving you the wrong drug and the wrong dose. The second is your provider getting bad inventory.

Prevent Medical Errors

These are two very different problems, but they both result in a medical error. Yet these errors are entirely preventable. While you, the patient, cannot possibly watch over every decision made when being treated, by being an informed healthcare consumer, you can cut down on your risk of becoming a statistic. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has a list of 20 tips to help prevent medical errors. I have highlighted a few:

1. Make sure that all of your doctors know about every medicine you are taking. This includes prescription and over-the-counter medicines and dietary supplements, such as vitamins and herbs.

2. Make sure your doctor knows about any allergies and adverse reactions you have had to medicines. This can help you to avoid getting a medicine that could harm you.

3. When you pick up your medicine from the pharmacy, ask: Is this the medicine that my doctor prescribed?

4. When you are being discharged from the hospital, ask your doctor to explain the treatment plan you will follow at home. This includes learning about your new medicines, making sure you know when to schedule follow-up appointments, and finding out when you can get back to your regular activities. It is important to know whether or not you should keep taking the medicines you were taking before your hospital stay. Getting clear instructions may help prevent an unexpected return trip to the hospital.

5. If you are having surgery, make sure that you, your doctor, and your surgeon all agree on exactly what will be done. Having surgery at the wrong site (for example, operating on the left knee instead of the right) is rare. But even once is too often. The good news is that wrong-site surgery is 100 percent preventable. Surgeons are expected to sign their initials directly on the site to be operated on before the surgery.

6. Speak up if you have questions or concerns. You have a right to question anyone who is involved with your care. In particular if you are taking a medication and it is not working the way it is supposed to – demand to the “pedigree” of the medication from your provider. A pedigree is the history of where that drug came from.  Make sure it is the real thing.

7. Learn about your condition and treatments by asking your doctor and nurse and by using other reliable sources. For example, treatment options based on the latest scientific evidence are available from the Effective Health Care Web site ( Ask your doctor if your treatment is based on the latest evidence.

Visit to see the complete list of tips.


Other resources include:


Remember that you have a right to be involved in your medical care. By asking questions about your treatment and making sure your doctors know your patient history, you can better avoid medical errors.

Thanks for reading!

Rebecca S. Busch

Healthcare Advocate

*According to the Annual Review of Medicine report “Reducing Medical Errors and Adverse Events,” Vol. 63: 447-463, published February 2012

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  • Hisashi - June 27, 2012

    As a Canadian/American, I agree we do need health care rerofm in the US. However, I’ve read Obama’s bill. It scares me. It’s weird. I don’t want it. I’d love to see the US get a system of healthcare like Canada’s but trust me, hon, this is not it! I loved Canadian healthcare.In Obama’s plan there’s a section about real time access to your bank records, there are limits to the number of doc’s you can see and the services they can provide (this DOES NOT happen in Canadian healthcare). And there’s some odd stuff about asking people how they’d like to die. There are things in Obama’s plan that don’t need to be there and the fact that they are means something. It doesn’t mean something good.I’m glad you want healthcare like Canada’s, but Obama’s plan is NOT like Canadian healthcare.