General Advice on Medicine Safety

Your doctors, nurses, and pharmacists work hard to keep you healthy, but you are also responsible. Learn what questions to ask and expect to get answers — it's your life and your health!

Unfortunately, medication errors happen. They happen in hospitals, in pharmacies, or even at home. And sometimes people get hurt because of these errors.

The more information you have, the better able you are to prevent errors and to take care of yourself. You have to ask your pharmacists, doctors, and nurses about your medicines; and you should learn as much as possible about the medicines you take.

Remember, you are your best advocate. Use the recommendations below as guides of things you can do at your home, at the hospital, and at the doctor's office to help keep you safe with medicines.

Preventing Errors at Home

Make a list of all the medicines you take. Include the dose, how often you take the medicine, the name of your pharmacy, and the imprint code on the tablets or capsules. The imprint/code can help you identify a medicine. Include any over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, vitamins, nutritional supplements, or herbal products you take regularly.

Any time there is a change in your medicines, update your list too. Double check the imprints/codes on the tablets and capsules using a “pill identifier tool” or the information on the prescription label.

List any drug allergies you have. Keep a list of any medicines you are allergic to and write down what type of reaction you have.

Keep medicines in their original containers. Many medicines look alike, so keeping them in their original containers will ensure you know which medicine is which and how to take them.

Never take someone else’s medicine. You don’t know if that medicine will interact with the medicines you take, if the dose is wrong for you, or if you are allergic to it.

Read the label. Read the label every time you take a dose of medicine to make sure you have the right drug and that you are following the instructions.

Turn on the lights to take your medicines. If you can’t see what you are taking, you may take the wrong thing.

Don’t store medicines in the bathroom medicine cabinet or in direct sunlight. Humidity, heat, and sunlight can affect the potency and safety of the medicine.

Keep medicine up and away and out of sight from children. Store medicines where children cannot see or reach them, for example, in a locked box or high cabinet.

Separate human and pet medicine. Keep medicine for people separate from pets’ medicine. Mix-ups can occur and can be dangerous for people and pets.

Store tubes of ointments away from household products. Don’t keep tubes of ointments or creams next to your tube of toothpaste. They look and feel similar and can be easily mixed-up.

Don’t chew, crush, break, or open any capsules or tablets unless instructed. Some long-acting medicines are absorbed too quickly when chewed, which could be unsafe. Chewing, crushing, breaking, or opening medicine capsules or tablets could make it ineffective or could make you sick.

To give liquid medicine, use the measuring device that came with it. Dosing errors can happen if you use a dosing cup that was for a different liquid medicine because the cups often are different sizes or have different markings. Also, household teaspoons and tablespoons are not accurate and should NEVER be used for measuring medicine. Your pharmacist should give you a special measuring device such as an oral syringe instead. If not, ask for one.

What You Can Do at the Hospital

Be prepared with your list of medicines. Take your medicine and your list of medicines with you when you go to the hospital. Your doctors, nurses, and pharmacists will need to know what you are taking.

Do not keep your home medicines at the hospital. Once your medical team has reviewed everything, send your medicine home with your family. While you are in the hospital you may not need the same medicine. Tell your doctor and nurse you want to know the names of each medicine you receive and the reason you are taking it. That way, if you are given a different medicine, you will know to ask questions, which might prevent errors.

Look at all of the medicines before you take them. If it doesn't look like what you usually take, ask why. It might be a generic version, or it might be the wrong medicine. Ask the same questions you would ask if you were in the pharmacy.

Make sure the nurse (and hospital staff) check your hospital ID. Do not let anyone give you medicine without checking or scanning your hospital identification (ID) bracelet every time. This helps prevent you from getting someone else's medicines.

Let hospital staff know about your allergies. Before any test or procedure, ask if it will require any dyes or medicines. Remind your nurse and doctor if you have allergies.

Review your medicine list before leaving the hospital. When you are ready to go home, have the doctor, nurse, or pharmacist go over each medicine with you and a family member. Update your medicine list from home if any prescriptions change or if new medicines are added.

What You Can Do at the Doctor’s Office

Bring your medicine list to your appointment. Take your medicine list every time you go to your doctor’s office, especially if you see more than one doctor. They might not know about the medicines other doctors prescribed for you.

Be sure you understand directions for taking any new medicine. Ask your doctor to explain what is written on any prescription, including the medicine name and how often you should take it. Then when you take the prescription to the pharmacy, you can double check the information on the label.

Ask your doctor to write why you need to take the medicine on the prescription. Many medicine names look and sound alike. Knowing the why you need to take the medicine will help you and the pharmacist double check the prescription.

If you are given medicine samples be sure to go over how to take them with your doctor and pharmacist. If your doctor gives you samples, make sure that they check to be sure that there are no interactions with other medicines you take. Pharmacies have computers to check for drug interactions and allergies, but when your doctor gives you samples, this important check may be missed.