When Patients Are Harmed by Medication Errors

When taken correctly, certain prescription drugs can greatly improve a patient’s health; however, when the wrong dose is taken, the wrong drug is prescribed, or an administration error occurs, medication has the power to cause serious harm—even death. Unfortunately, harmful medication mistakes occur in hospitals far too often. In fact, medication errors lead to 7,000 deaths annually, according to American Nurse Today.

Although any type of medication can cause serious injuries or death when a mistake is made, there are certain drugs that are among the most harmful. According to The Joint Commission, a medical accreditation organization, high-alert medications (HAM) have the potential to cause serious harm to patients when errors occur.

Defining High-Alert Medications

The four high-alert medication classes include:

  1. Anticoagulants. Many people take anticoagulant medication such as warfarin, rivaroxaban, heparin, etc. These medications help prevent blood clots for people with certain health conditions; however, they carry serious risks of harm. For instance, if the wrong dosage is calculated or an administration mistake occurs, patients can suffer serious injuries, loss of function, and even death. Another way in which an anticoagulant error can occur is when a medical professional fails to restart anticoagulants after surgery—causing a patient to suffer a blood clot, stroke, or heart attack.  
  2. Sedatives. Although needed for sedation during many hospital procedures, sedatives can be used inappropriately and can cause dizziness, confusion, lethargy, and reduce one’s awareness following the procedure. As a result, a patient may be at an increased risk of falling and suffering serious injuries.
  3. Insulins. For patients who need insulin, mistakes involving the wrong medication or dose can be life-threatening or cause severe hypoglycemia. Insulin errors often occur because these types of medications are stored next to one another in a hospital, or they have similar packaging and nurses mistakenly grab the wrong drug or drug strength. Also, sometimes insulin errors occur due to the type of syringe that is needed. For instance, certain insulin needs a tuberculin syringe instead of a normal insulin syringe—creating confusion surrounding the units of insulin.
  4. Opioids. Because they are powerful pain relievers, medical professionals frequently administer opioid medications, especially in the emergency room or after surgery. Although many patients do get relief from their pain, sometimes mistakes made with opioids can actually cause patients more harm. Errors made with opioid medications can occur due to poor patient monitoring, drug interactions, and adverse drug reactions; however, the main cause of opioid errors in hospitals is due to incorrect dosages, according to American Nurse Today.

When Is a HAM Error Considered Medical Malpractice?

The National Coordinating Council for Medication Error Reporting and Prevention describes a medication error 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 health care professional, patient, or consumer. Such events may be related to professional practice, health care products, procedures, and systems, including prescribing; order communication; product labeling, packaging, and nomenclature; compounding; dispensing; distribution; administration; education; monitoring; and use.”

This means that if a HAM drug causes a patient harm due to a doctor prescribing the wrong medication, a nurse administering the wrong dose, a pharmacist dispensing an incorrect medication, or a hospital having poor procedures and systems in place to prevent medication errors, it is very likely that medical malpractice has occurred. A HAM error is NOT considered medical malpractice if a patient uses the drug in error.

Pursuing a Medical Malpractice Claim

If you received a high-alert medication or another drug while at a hospital that caused you harm and you believe medical negligence is to blame, it is critical that you speak with an attorney as soon as possible. A lawyer who is experienced in handling hospital and medication error cases knows how to investigate and which experts to hire to strengthen your case. To learn about your rights, you can download one of our free books that can help you get started pursuing a medical malpractice claim, or you can call our office for a free consultation.