Empowered Patient is a regular feature from CNN Medical News correspondent Elizabeth Cohen that helps put you in the driver's seat when it comes to health care.
(CNN) -- When Chanda Givens found out she was pregnant, she did what most expectant mothers would do: She went out to fill her prescription for prenatal vitamins.
When she miscarried within a few weeks of taking the drug, Givens said it never occurred to her the prescription might be the cause. She later learned that instead of being given a prescription for Materna, a prenatal vitamin, she received one for Matulane, a chemotherapy drug used to treat Hodgkin's disease, according to a lawsuit filed this month in federal court.
The drug is intended to interfere with cell growth and DNA development, according to the lawsuit.
Givens said her prescription was filled at a Walgreens pharmacy near her suburban St. Louis, Missouri, home. Walgreens said it's reached a resolution with the family and declined further comment.
Every year in the United States, 30 million dispensing errors out of 3 billion prescriptions occur at outpatient pharmacies, according to the National Patient Safety Foundation. Some errors are minor. Some patients catch easily. But others can be serious.
"There's been a tremendous increase in fatal pharmacy errors over the past 20 years," said David Phillips, a sociology professor at the University of California-San Diego who has studied this issue. "And the increase is much bigger for outpatient pharmacies than for inpatient pharmacies."
Why the increase? Phillips said more health care is happening outside hospitals, putting more of a burden on outpatient pharmacists. Here, from Phillips and other experts, are ways to avoid becoming a victim:
Phillips' research shows that in the first few days of each month fatalities due to medication errors rise by as much as 25 percent above normal. The reason: Social Security checks come at the beginning of the month.
"Quite a number of people can't afford to get their medicines until the Social Security check comes in, so at the beginning of the month they turn up in abnormally large numbers and swamp the pharmacists," Phillips said. "When pharmacists are busy, they make more mistakes."
Of course, it's not always possible to wait a week or two to get a prescription, but Phillips advises to do so if you can.
Mitch Rothholz, a spokesman for the American Pharmacists Association, said pharmacy errors aren't common, but that there are things patients can do to make sure the medicine inside a bottle is the right drug.
He said opening the bottle right at the pharmacy and showing the pills to the pharmacist is one safeguard. Another: If it looks different than the medicine you've taken before, or you have any questions, don't be afraid to ask the pharmacist.
"When picking up drugs, patients want to get in and out quickly," said Hedy Cohen, a spokeswoman for the Institute for Safe Medication Practices. "We care if our food has butter or margarine on it. We really should be much more careful about the medications we put in our mouths."
Cohen said patients should take the time to get detailed instructions about how to take a drug. Errors happen not just when the wrong medicine is dispensed, but when the right medicine is taken at the wrong dosage.
Cohen added that pharmacies can take additional steps, too. For example, many drug names look alike.
Cohen suggests writing in capital letters the portions of drug names similar to other medications to make distinctions more clear and to prevent errors. Commonly confused drugs
The Institute for Safe Medication Practices has suggestions for making abbreviations clearer, too. For example, when a doctor writes "q.o.d." on a prescription, that means the pharmacist should instruct the patient to take the medicine every other day. That abbreviation could be mistaken for "q.d.", which means daily. The solution: Physicians should write out "every day" or "every other day." E-mail to a friend
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