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Five ways to avoid medication mistakes

By Elizabeth Cohen
  • Institute of Medicine: Medication errors harm at least 1.5 million people annually
  • Know exactly what your doctor is prescribing, its dosage and frequency
  • At pharmacy, check labels before you leave
  • In hospital: Ask for list of all meds, what they look like and when you should get them

Empowered Patient, a regular feature from CNN Medical News correspondent Elizabeth Cohen, helps put you in the driver's seat when it comes to health care.

(CNN) -- When Dr. Albert Wu's wife, Diana Sugg, was pregnant with their first child, Sugg developed hepatitis and meningitis and was hospitalized. One evening while Wu was at the hospital taking care of his feverish wife, a nurse came in the room to give Sugg her antibiotics.

Wu knew immediately that something was wrong.

The nurse's antibiotics were pills. He remembered that just a short time before, another nurse had given his wife the exact same antibiotics, but intravenously. He feared his wife was about to get two doses of the same medicine.

"I told the nurse, and she said, 'Oh dear. We'll check that,' " says Wu, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. "Had I not been there to intercept the error, she would have gotten both doses."

Medication errors harm at least 1.5 million people every year, according to the Institute of Medicine. In hospitals, there is at least one medication error per patient per day, according to an IOM report last year.

The newborn twins of actor Dennis Quaid were reportedly the victims of medication errors earlier this month when they were given doses of a blood thinner that was 1,000 times stronger than what was prescribed.

Outside the hospital, the situation is not as clear. But the IOM report says roughly 530,000 medication errors occur among Medicare recipients in outpatient clinics -- and that this is most likely an underestimate.

"The numbers really are staggering," says Wu, who helped write the IOM report. "Medication errors happen every day."

Wu says his experience with his wife shows patients really can prevent some -- but not all -- medication errors. Here from him and other experts are tips for avoiding medication errors.

1. Get in your doctor's face

The first step to preventing medication errors is to know exactly what your doctor is prescribing, how often you should take it, and at what dosage. Don't walk out of the doctor's office confused. "If you don't understand something, you should ask," says Wu. "This may seem like you're getting your doctor annoyed with you, but we doctors should get used to it."

Also, when your doctor writes a prescription, make sure you can read it. "If you can't read the doctor's handwriting, your pharmacist might not be able to either," according to a list of tips from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. "Ask the doctor to use block letters to print the name of the drug."

2. Get in your pharmacist's face

At the pharmacy, don't just take the prescription and walk away. Check the name, make sure it's what you were prescribed, and show the medicine to the pharmacist to double check you have the right one. For more tips on avoiding pharmacy errors, click here.

3. In the hospital, get your meds in writing

Ask for a list of all the medications you're supposed to be given, what they look like, and when you should get them. Then, when a nurse comes around to give you your medications, you know if they have it right, says Hedy Cohen, vice president of the Institute for Safe Medication Practices.

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Cohen, a nurse, says she's seen patients get the wrong medication. "If you're supposed to get an orange pill at noon and instead you get a blue one, you can say something," Cohen says.

4. Make sure this is really YOUR medicine

Especially if your name is "Smith" or "Jones." "I personally saw a mom say to a nurse, 'Hey, the IV bag you're about to give my son has another child's name on it,' " Cohen says. She recommends showing the nurse your ID bracelet every time you're given a medicine.

Of course, it can be tough to notice mistakes when you're sick. That's why researchers who specialize in medical errors say it's very important to have someone with you in the hospital.

5. Get dramatic if you have to

Wu says when his friend's daughter was in the hospital, his friend realized a nurse was about to administer the wrong medicine. When Wu's friend told her this was not the medication the doctor had ordered, the nurse didn't believe him. "He threw himself across the bed until they realized the medication was for the next patient," Wu says.

A stern verbal request might work, too. "You could say, 'Just to be safe, could you please check with the doctor,' " Wu says. "Say, 'I don't want anything bad to happen, so please check.' "

Elizabeth Cohen is a correspondent with CNN Medical News. Senior producer Jennifer Pifer contributed to this report.