Medication Management and Your Aging Parent: How to Avoid Errors

If you are the adult child of an aging parent, there are steps that can be taken to better ensure that your mother or father doesn’t become the victim of some type of medication error or mistake. Needless to say, avoiding a medication error is vital if your parent is living in his or her own residence, is in an assisted living community, is in a nursing home, or lives in a memory center. There are some tips and tactics that you and others responsible for your parent’s medication management can utilize in order to reduce the risk of some type of medication error or medication mistake.

What Is a Medication Error or Medication Mistake?

A medication error is defined as “any preventable event that may cause or lead to inappropriate medication use or patient harm while the medication is in the control of the healthcare professional, patient, or consumer,” according to the National Coordinating Council for Medication Error Reporting and Prevention. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration or FDA utilizes this definition of medication error. 

Incidence of Medication Errors or Medication Mistakes

According to the FDA, that agency receives reports of over 100,000 medication errors annually. The reality is that this number almost certainly is far, far below the number of actual incidents of medication mistakes that occur each year across the United States. The fact is many (if not most) medication errors likely go unreported. 

Affects of Medication Errors Among Older Americans

Medication mistakes can have devastating consequences. These include:

  • Death
  • Life threatening situation
  • Hospitalization
  • Disability
  • Lack of proper treatment of diagnosed disease or condition

Medication Checklist to Keep Your Older Parent Safe

The Mayo Clinic has devised a checklist of questions that are designed to assist a patient or caregiver in ensuring that medications properly are managed and the risk of error or mistake is reduced. 

  • What is the brand or generic name of the medication?
  • What is the medication supposed to do? 
  • How long will it be until results are seen?
  • What is the dose?
  • How long should the medication be taken?
  • What should be done if a dose is missed?
  • What should be done more than the recommended dose is taken?
  • Are there any foods, drinks, other medications or activities that should be avoided while taking a particular medication?
  • What are the possible side effects? 
  • What should a person do if side effects occur?
  • Will this new medication interfere with other medication(s)? 
  • If so, how might that interference manifest itself?

Comprehensive Medication Safety Practices

In addition to the checklist discussed a moment ago, the FDA and Mayo Clinic recommend instituting a comprehensive set of medication use safety practices. These practices apply to the use of prescription as well as over the counter medications:

  • Keep an up-to-date list of all your medications, including nonprescription drugs and supplements
  • Store medications in their original labeled containers
  • Keep your medications organized by using a pillbox or an automatic pill dispenser
  • Save the information sheets that come with your medications
  • Use the same pharmacy, if possible, for all of your prescriptions
  • When you pick up a prescription, check that it’s the one your doctor ordered
  • Don’t give your prescription medication to someone else and don’t take someone else’s

Importance of Medication Reconciliation

The FDA and Mayo Clinic recommend medication reconciliation as a crucial strategy to avoid error or mistake. Medication reconciliation involves comparing the list of medications your healthcare provider currently has with the list of medications you actually are taking. This process is done to avoid medication errors that include:

  • Missing medications (omissions)
  • Duplicate medications
  • Dosing errors
  • Drug interactions

Medication reconciliation should be done at every time a new medication is prescribed and every time an existing prescription is refilled. Moreover, medication reconciliation extends to the procurement and use of over the counter medications as well. 

Do Not Overlook Over the Counter Labels

According to a Harris Interactive Market Research Poll that was undertaken for the National Council on Patient Information and Education, consumers historically frequently overlook important label information contained on over-the-counter medications. In the aftermath of that poll, the FDA moved to require a standardized “Drug Facts” label on more than 100,000 OTC drug products. The Drug Facts label is modeled after the Nutrition Facts label on foods. Drug Facts are designed to assist consumers compare and then select over the counter medications. Drug Facts are also designed to better ensure consumers follow instructions. The Drug Facts label clearly lists:

  • Active ingredients
  • Inactive ingredients
  • Uses
  • Warnings
  • Dosage
  • Directions
  • How to store the medicine
  • Other information as needed

Common Recurring Medication Errors

A set of specific medication mistakes warrant special note:

  • Confusing eardrops and eyedrops. Confusing eardrops and eyedrops happens with alarming regularity. The reality is that a significant number of individuals take both of these medications at the same time. Always double-check the label. If a medication says “otic,” it’s for the ears. If it says “ophthalmic,” it’s for the eyes.
  • Chewing nonchewables. Don’t assume chewing a pill is as good as swallowing it. Some medications should never be chewed, cut, or crushed. Doing so may change how they’re absorbed by the body. This can negatively impact the effectiveness of a medication. Moreover, there is also a risk of harm if some nonchewable medications are chewed, cut, or crushed.
  • Cutting up pills. Never cut or split pills unless your doctor or pharmacist has told you it’s safe to do so. Some medications shouldn’t be cut because they’re specially coated to be long acting or to protect the stomach.
  • Using the wrong spoon. The spoons in your silverware drawer aren’t measuring spoons. To get an accurate dose, use an oral syringe (available at pharmacies) or the dose cup that came with the medication.

Ask Questions

If you receive new prescription from your physician, make sure you understand what it is for and how it is used. Ask questions of your doctor to ensure you fully understand everything you need to know about the medication. (The same holds true if your doctor recommends that you add an over the counter medication to your regimen.)

Keep in mind that a pharmacist is available to respond to any questions you have as well. Pharmacists deal with medications only and are in a solid position of being able to provide to you the necessary information you require about a particular drug.