Medication errors: an overview for clinicians

Mayo Clin Proc. 2014 Aug;89(8):1116-25. doi: 10.1016/j.mayocp.2014.05.007. Epub 2014 Jun 27.


Medication error is an important cause of patient morbidity and mortality, yet it can be a confusing and underappreciated concept. This article provides a review for practicing physicians that focuses on medication error (1) terminology and definitions, (2) incidence, (3) risk factors, (4) avoidance strategies, and (5) disclosure and legal consequences. A medication error is any error that occurs at any point in the medication use process. It has been estimated by the Institute of Medicine that medication errors cause 1 of 131 outpatient and 1 of 854 inpatient deaths. Medication factors (eg, similar sounding names, low therapeutic index), patient factors (eg, poor renal or hepatic function, impaired cognition, polypharmacy), and health care professional factors (eg, use of abbreviations in prescriptions and other communications, cognitive biases) can precipitate medication errors. Consequences faced by physicians after medication errors can include loss of patient trust, civil actions, criminal charges, and medical board discipline. Methods to prevent medication errors from occurring (eg, use of information technology, better drug labeling, and medication reconciliation) have been used with varying success. When an error is discovered, patients expect disclosure that is timely, given in person, and accompanied with an apology and communication of efforts to prevent future errors. Learning more about medication errors may enhance health care professionals' ability to provide safe care to their patients.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Disclosure
  • Drug Labeling / methods
  • Drug Labeling / standards
  • Health Personnel / education*
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Inpatients / statistics & numerical data
  • Liability, Legal / economics
  • Medication Errors* / adverse effects
  • Medication Errors* / economics
  • Medication Errors* / prevention & control
  • Medication Errors* / statistics & numerical data
  • Medication Reconciliation / methods
  • Medication Reconciliation / standards
  • Outpatients / statistics & numerical data
  • Patient Education as Topic*
  • Patient Harm / mortality
  • Patient Harm / statistics & numerical data*
  • Pharmacovigilance*
  • Risk Factors
  • Root Cause Analysis
  • United States / epidemiology