Reducing medication errors and increasing patient safety: case studies in clinical pharmacology

J Clin Pharmacol. 2003 Jul;43(7):768-83.


Today, reducing medication errors and improving patient safety have become common topics of discussion for the president of the United States, federal and state legislators, the insurance industry, pharmaceutical companies, health care professionals, and patients. But this is not news to clinical pharmacologists. Improving the judicious use of medications and minimizing adverse drug reactions have always been key areas of research and study for those working in clinical pharmacology. However, added to the older terms of adverse drug reactions and rational therapeutics, the now politically correct expression of medication error has emerged. Focusing on the word error has drawn attention to "prevention" and what can be done to minimize mistakes and improve patient safety. Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary has several definitions of error, but the one that seems to be most appropriate in the context of medication errors is "an act that through ingnorance, deficiency, or accident departs from or fails to achieve what should be done." What should be done is generally known as "the five rights": the right drug, right dose, right route, right time, and right patient. One can make an error of omission (failure to act correctly) or an error of commission (acted incorrectly). This article now summarizes what is currently known about medication errors and translates the information into case studies illustrating common scenarios leading to medication errors. Each case is analyzed to provide insight into how the medication error could have been prevented. "System errors" are described, and the application of failure mode effect analysis (FMEA) is presented to determine the part of the "safety net" that failed. Examples of reengineering the system to make it more "error proof" are presented. An error can be prevented. However, the practice of medicine, pharmacy, and nursing in the hospital setting is very complicated, and so many steps occur from "pen to patient" that there is a lot to analyze. Implementing safer practices requires developing safer systems. Many errors occur as a result of poor oral or written communications. Enhanced communication skills and better interactions among members of the health care team and the patient are essential. The informed consent process should be used as a patient safety tool, and the patient should be warned about material and foreseeable serious side effects and be told what signs and symptoms should be immediately reported to the physician before the patient is forced to go to the emergency department for urgent or emergency care. Last, reducing medication errors is an ongoing process of quality improvement. Faculty systems must be redesigned, and seamless, computerized integrated medication delivery must be instituted by health care professionals adequately trained to use such technological advances. Sloppy handwritten prescriptions should be replaced by computerized physician order entry, a very effective technique for reducing prescribing/ordering errors, but another far less expensive yet effective change would involve writing all drug orders in plain English, rather than continuing to use the elitists' arcane Latin words and shorthand abbreviations that are subject to misinterpretation. After all, effective communication is best accomplished when it is clear and simple.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Drug Prescriptions / standards
  • Drug Prescriptions / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent / history
  • Informed Consent / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Male
  • Malpractice / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Malpractice / statistics & numerical data
  • Medication Errors / classification
  • Medication Errors / prevention & control*
  • Medication Errors / statistics & numerical data
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Education as Topic
  • Pharmacology, Clinical / history
  • Pharmacology, Clinical / methods*
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Quality Assurance, Health Care
  • Risk Management