A Guide to the Most Common Medication Errors

Cohen, Placitella & Roth

Mar 15, 2023

Medication errors are one of the most common risks to patients worldwide. After all, before you pick up your prescription, it goes through doctors, nurses, computer systems, and pharmacists. Each time it changes hands, there’s a new opportunity for a critical mistake to occur. When errors do happen, victims are not helpless—a medical malpractice lawsuit is one solution for harmful medication errors.

If you plan to pursue a medical malpractice case, you need to understand the circumstances and implications of the most common medication errors. You can file a lawsuit with the help of an attorney if the medication error you experienced meets legal requirements. By doing so, you may recover the economic and noneconomic losses you suffered from the incident.

Definition of Medication Errors

The elements of a medical claim are proof of a medical error resulting from substandard care, proof that this care caused harm and proof of the harm in terms of economic and non economic losses. If you feel you’ve been injured because of a medication error, you should speak with a lawyer experienced in handling these kinds of claims to help you develop the proofs necessary to succeed in a lawsuit. You and your lawyer will need to consider the circumstances around your injury as well as the possible responsible parties.

Identifying a Medication Error

There is no single legal definition for a medication error. All cases are unique, and a uniform definition may not encompass every experience. However, most institutions agree that a medication error is a preventable event in which improper use of a medication results in patient harm.

For instance, a misplaced decimal in a dosage calculation could lead to a patient receiving ten times the amount of medication prescribed. This could cause an overdose and painful side effects that otherwise would not have occurred. Likewise, a mistake in transcribing the medication prescribed could mean the patient receives the wrong medicine.

Keep in mind that an adverse drug event does not always indicate a medication error. Medication errors are reasonably preventable. Doctors can predict and manage most drug side effects and reactions while maintaining patient safety. However, failing to warn patients of potential side effects such as drowsiness or dizziness can be a strong basis for a medical malpractice case.

Medication Error Liability

Any healthcare provider in the chain of distributing a medication can make a mistake that leads to a medication error. This includes doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists, and pharmacists. Hospitals and hospital pharmacy departments could also be liable for a medication error.

In some rare cases, even pharmaceutical companies make drug errors. However, those mistakes often end in a product liability claim rather than a medical malpractice lawsuit.

Most Common Medication Errors

The procedure for administering medication requires multiple steps and often involves several healthcare providers. Plenty of opportunities exist within this process for errors to occur, though the most common mistakes typically result from simple human error.

Types of Medication Errors

The most common types of medication mistakes include the following:

  • Dispensing or prescribing an incorrect medication
  • Dispensing or prescribing the wrong dosage strength or form
  • Using an incorrect method of medication administration, such as giving an oral medication intravenously or injecting an intramuscular medication into a vein
  • Failing to consider or notice negative drug interactions
  • Issuing a drug on the wrong schedule or without following the medication’s directions
  • Prescribing a medication made by a non-FDA approved manufacturer

In the case of a drug allergy, you may have a medication error case if your doctor knew or should have known about the allergy. This applies if the allergy is clearly documented, and a doctor administers the drug or class of drug anyway. Another example is if a doctor fails to recognize the symptoms of a drug allergy and continues to prescribe the medication.

Frequency of Medication Errors

According to a StatPearls article in the National Library of Medicine, the United States faces up to 9,000 deaths per year related to medication mistakes. In addition to fatal medication errors, the World Health Organization reports that each year, 1.3 million people suffer injuries from medication errors in the United States alone. In fact, medication mistakes are one of the most common medical errors in the healthcare field.

How Medication Errors Happen

Medication errors can occur at any stage from prescription to medication administration and effects monitoring. They typically occur because of human error, communication issues, and other systematic mistakes. Attentiveness at each step is crucial to prevent as many medication errors as possible, at all stages of the treatment process.

Causes of Medication Errors

Most medication errors occur at the ordering and prescribing stage. At this point, doctors may write down the wrong medication, dose, or frequency. They may confuse drugs with similar names or packaging. They may even mistakenly select the wrong drug from a drop-down menu.

Poor communication also leads to mistakes. Illegible handwriting is a frequent source of errors, as is misunderstood abbreviations. In addition, it’s not uncommon for doctors to communicate prescriptions verbally to nurses or pharmacists. This introduces the possibility of misheard or misremembered orders.

Another common cause of medication errors is miscalculation. Correct dosages depend on factors like body weight, and mistaking pounds and kilograms can have fatal consequences. Misplacing decimals is another common error that can result in patients receiving an incorrect dosage.

Preventing Medication Errors

Doctors can reduce medication errors by minimizing distractions while they prescribe medication, as well as writing and speaking with clarity and precision. They should avoid abbreviation and provide thorough directions for medication use, including the duration of treatment. Prescribers should also indicate diagnoses on prescription orders so that other healthcare providers can verify and reinforce the treatment plan.

Some systematic solutions can prevent many errors as well. For example, storing similarly named or packaged drugs separately can avoid confusion. Hospitals and offices may also consider introducing policies that require prescription verification. Computerized medication systems reduce the risk of a calculation error, but doctors and technicians still need to double-check their formulas.

For patients, the main responsibility to maintain medication safety is self-advocacy. Ask questions about your medications, keep a clear record of your allergies, and report any side effects that you experience. In addition, educate yourself about your prescriptions. You should know the names, dosages, directions, and effects of all the medications you take.

Filing a Medical Malpractice Claim

Even when healthcare providers exercise caution, mistakes still happen. In these cases, victims have the right to pursue legal action to recover any losses they experienced because of the incident. Filing a lawsuit can be complicated, but an experienced personal injury attorney can guide victims through the process.

Requirements for a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit

Medication errors fall under the umbrellas for a medical malpractice lawsuit and a personal injury lawsuit. These types of cases require a provable breach in the established standard of care which resulted in harm to the patient. To prove negligence in a medication error case specifically, you need to meet the following requirements:

  • You followed all the medication’s instructions according to what your doctor or pharmacist told you
  • The responsible party failed to act with reasonable care while ordering, filling, or administering your medication
  • The error caused you harm
  • The harm you suffered resulted in damage, such as pain and suffering, disability or deformity, medical bills or lost wages

To establish the basis for your claim, you will need evidence of these elements. You will also require evidence through an expert witness. An expert witness is a professional in the medical field who can testify that the defendant breached the standard of care. An expert testimony may also help verify your injuries and that they were caused by the medication error.

Proving economic damages can be relatively simple but require careful development. For instance, while proof of the medical bills related for treatment is easy to obtain, your lawyer and you will need to understand and prove what your future needs will be and their costs. Similarly, earnings losses and the loss of earning capacity related to your injuries are compensable in a lawsuit. You may be able to prove noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering or emotional anguish through testimony and medical records.

The Process for Filing a Claim

Your first step for filing a medical malpractice claim is to reach out to an experienced personal injury attorney. Initial consultations are usually free, and often you will not have to pay your lawyer out of pocket. You lawyer should explain the nature of his or her representation, including any contingency fee, during your first meeting.

The process of initiating a lawsuit requires a few steps and may vary from state-to-state. First, you must meet any of your state’s pre-suit requirements, such as obtaining a certificate of merit. Once all pre-suit requirements are met, your attorney can initiate a formal lawsuit by filing what is called a “complaint”.

Medical malpractice lawsuits are often complicated and hard fought. Litigating a successful medical malpractice lawsuit usually requires a great deal of complex work by both sides. At the conclusion of litigation, parties often either reach a settlement or proceed to trial. Though each case is different, you can expect legal proceedings to take about two or three years total.

Contact Cohen, Placitella & Roth Today

A medication error is not a simple misstep; even the most common medication errors are preventable mistakes that can carry fatal consequences for patients. Healthcare providers and patients alike should consistently exercise caution when dealing with prescriptions. However, when errors arise, victims can take legal action. A medical malpractice claim may be the best way to recover your losses if you were harmed by a medication error.

Cohen, Placitella & Roth Law Offices take on—and win—the fights that others think can’t be won. Our team of lawyers has earned a distinguished reputation for achieving life-changing outcomes by combining decades of experience, tenacity and fresh strategic perspectives to each case we undertake. We champion and seek justice for our clients guided by a shared goal of doing what’s right and making a positive lasting impact on their lives.

If you have a question or would like to consult with us about your medical malpractice claim, contact us online or give us a call at (888) 560-7189 to speak with our talented team of lawyers.