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How patients can help avoid becoming victims of medication errors

Some of the most serious medical errors suffered by patients involve prescription medications. These errors include being given the wrong medication, either in a facility or when filling a prescription. Sometimes, patients are given the wrong dosage, perhaps by a nurse or other hospital or nursing home staffer who misreads the instructions. In other cases, patients are given a medication to which they're allergic or that interacts negatively with something else they're taking.

Medical professionals have a duty to take reasonable precautions to prevent these errors. However, patients and their family members can take steps to avoid potentially lethal mistakes.

Whenever you visit the doctor, be prepared to give them a full list of your medications. This includes vitamins and other supplements. To be safe, put your medications in a bag, and bring them with you.

Make sure that all of your doctors know about all of your allergies, even if they seem irrelevant. Let them know about any adverse reactions you've ever experienced to medications or shots.

If your doctor prescribes a new medication, don't be afraid to ask questions. What specifically is it intended to do? How long are you supposed to take it? Should you expect any side effects? Should it be taken at specific times of the day, with food or on an empty stomach? Should you avoid alcohol or any other foods or drinks that could interact badly with it?

Fortunately, the days of doctors scribbling indecipherable words on prescription pads are largely behind us. Your prescription will likely be printed out for you or sent directly to a pharmacy. However, when you pick up the medication or receive it in the mail, be sure it's what your doctor prescribed for you, that the dosage on the container matches what's on the prescription and that any description of the pills on the label matches what's inside the container.

If you pick the prescription up in person, listen to everything the pharmacist tells you. Ask questions, if you have any. Don't feel rushed, even if there's a line of impatient customers behind you. When you get home, if you have additional questions, call the pharmacy or your doctor's office.

If you or a loved one has suffered harm due to a medication error that was the fault of a doctor, nurse, pharmacist or other medical professional, find out what legal options you have.

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