Do calculation errors by nurses cause medication errors in clinical practice? A literature review

Nurse Educ Today. 2010 Jan;30(1):85-97. doi: 10.1016/j.nedt.2009.06.009.


This review aims to examine the literature available to ascertain whether medication errors in clinical practice are the result of nurses' miscalculating drug dosages. The research studies highlighting poor calculation skills of nurses and student nurses have been tested using written drug calculation tests in formal classroom settings [Kapborg, I., 1994. Calculation and administration of drug dosage by Swedish nurses, student nurses and physicians. International Journal for Quality in Health Care 6(4): 389 -395; Hutton, M., 1998. Nursing Mathematics: the importance of application Nursing Standard 13(11): 35-38; Weeks, K., Lynne, P., Torrance, C., 2000. Written drug dosage errors made by students: the threat to clinical effectiveness and the need for a new approach. Clinical Effectiveness in Nursing 4, 20-29]; Wright, K., 2004. Investigation to find strategies to improve student nurses' maths skills. British Journal Nursing 13(21) 1280-1287; Wright, K., 2005. An exploration into the most effective way to teach drug calculation skills to nursing students. Nurse Education Today 25, 430-436], but there have been no reviews of the literature on medication errors in practice that specifically look to see whether the medication errors are caused by nurses' poor calculation skills. The databases Medline, CINAHL, British Nursing Index (BNI), Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) and Archives and Cochrane reviews were searched for research studies or systematic reviews which reported on the incidence or causes of drug errors in clinical practice. In total 33 articles met the criteria for this review. There were no studies that examined nurses' drug calculation errors in practice. As a result studies and systematic reviews that investigated the types and causes of drug errors were examined to establish whether miscalculations by nurses were the causes of errors. The review found insufficient evidence to suggest that medication errors are caused by nurses' poor calculation skills. Of the 33 studies reviewed only five articles specifically recorded information relating to calculation errors and only two of these detected errors using the direct observational approach. The literature suggests that there are other more pressing aspects of nurses' preparation and administration of medications which are contributing to medication errors in practice that require more urgent attention and calls into question the current focus on calculation and numeracy skills of pre registration and qualified nurses (NMC 2008). However, more research is required into the calculation errors in practice. In particular there is a need for a direct observational study on paediatric nurses as there are presently none examining this area of practice.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Causality
  • Child
  • Clinical Competence*
  • Drug Dosage Calculations*
  • Educational Measurement
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Medication Errors / nursing*
  • Medication Errors / statistics & numerical data
  • Nurse's Role*
  • Nursing Audit
  • Nursing Evaluation Research / organization & administration*
  • Pediatric Nursing
  • Prospective Studies
  • Research Design
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Systems Analysis