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How to avoid medication errors

Batoul Senhaji-Tomza of Touro College of Pharmacy in

Batoul Senhaji-Tomza of Touro College of Pharmacy in Manhattan. Credit: Handout

For too many seniors, what is supposed to make them better is making them very ill.

Adverse drug reactions caused by medication errors have always been a big concern, but health professionals have only recently realized the extent of the problem. Because of the growing senior population and the amount of drugs older people take, the number of serious illnesses and deaths caused by medication errors is skyrocketing.

"Medication errors, in general, are likely to be between the fourth- and sixth-leading cause of death in the United States," says Batoul Senhaji-Tomza, an associate professor at Touro College of Pharmacy in Manhattan.

The exact number of deaths, illnesses and other health problems caused by medication errors is impossible to know for sure. For example, if a senior suffers a fatal fall after taking the wrong medication or wrong dosage, the cause of death is unlikely to be listed as medication error.

Outside of medication errors that happen during a hospital stay -- a major problem in itself -- there are steps seniors can take to reduce the chances of adverse drug reactions. "The good news is that it's avoidable," Senhaji-Tomza says.

First step Keep a medication diary and bring it with you every time you go to a doctor. (Your pharmacy should have a free medication log or you can download one from the CDC at bit.ly/drug-log.) Because many seniors see multiple physicians, each doctor may not have a complete list of your prescription medication history. Make sure to mention any over-the-counter or dietary supplements you take. And bring a notebook with you to write down your doctor's instructions.

"We're bombarded with information in a 15-minute session, and we think we're going to remember, but we don't," Senhaji-Tomza says.

Second step At the pharmacy, make sure you read and understand the labels on your prescriptions. And here's a chance to ask questions you may have forgotten to ask your doctor.

Senhaji-Tomza recommends going to a single pharmacy for all your medications so the pharmacist has a complete list of your prescriptions. It is not uncommon for a pharmacist to discover that you have been prescribed a potentially dangerous combination of drugs or may be taking some unnecessary medications. "The pharmacists are the last link in the chain of health care," she says. "They are there to prevent an error from happening."

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