Each year, there are over 100,000 deaths as a result of medication errors. There are also over 150,000 deaths as a result of drug interactions. Most of these occur in seniors because they are either taking a lot of medications or do not closely look at what they are taking and tend to “just follow orders”.

These statistics are not very widely made available. In fact, you will probably never see medication errors or drug reaction listed as a cause of death on a death certificate. While this is not an indictment of the medical community, there is no doubt that it goes into great lengths to keep these occurrences from public knowledge.

As an example of what it might take to get them to open up, in April, the state of New Jersey passed a law requiring hospitals to report serious medical errors. In other to encourage reporting, the law has a provision that the state will not make this information available to the public. The hope is that if they just collect the data, they can use them to figure out how to reduce the incidence.

The bottom line here is that you, either as a caregiver, or a patient, must become proactive and do what it takes to protect yourself or your loved one.

Before I discuss some of the things you can do, I just want to let you know that I did not come across these statistics by accident. I went looking for them. I did so after two of my own family members became victims of medication errors.

The more serious event occurred when my mother-in-law was diagnosed with lung cancer. As the pain got worse, her doctor prescribed morphine to help her cope with it. Then one day, her doctor mistakenly gave her the short-acting formulation of morphine but in the long-acting dosage strength. She went into respiratory distress, the classic symptoms of morphine overdose and would have died had she not been rushed to the hospital in time.

When another family member was given the wrong medication at her pharmacy and she discovered it only because she was familiar with what the correct medication should look like, I started wondering how big a problem medication errors are. And that is how I uncovered these shocking statistics.

In fact, if it were listed as a cause of death, medication errors and drug reactions would be ahead of diabetes and car accidents as causes of death.

The good news, however, is that there are things you can do to prevent medication errors from occurring to your loved one or to yourself.

Here are some recommendations:

  • Always keep a record of all the medications you take, including over-the-counter medicines and bring this with you to your doctor and pharmacist.
  • When you get a prescription from your doctor, BEFORE taking it to the pharmacy, write down the brand name, generic name and dose
  • Write down what the medicine is used for
  • After filing the prescription at the pharmacy, recheck with your records to make sure that you were given the right medication and the right dose
  • Before taking your medicine, take another look to be sure you are taking the right medicine and the right dose
  • If you have any doubts about your medicine, do not guess. Call your doctor or pharmacy to be sure
  • If you feel anything unusual after taking your medicine, IMMEDIATELY call your doctor or pharmacy and report it.

Medication errors happen every day and yet they are very preventable. Please follow these simple steps outlined in this article to ensure that you or your loved one does not become a statistic that will most probably not be reported.

Dr. David Nganele


  • Dr. David Nganele is a New York Times-profiled health education expert. He provides individuals with the knowledge and tools to help them become their own best doctor. He believes that “The More You Know, The Better You’ll Live.” He is also one of the premier writers and speakers on how to identify and manage the cost of healthcare while getting better services.

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