7 Sensible Steps to Safety

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Published July 2007

“My pill was smaller this month than it normally is. When I called my pharmacy, they said they gave me a lower dosage of the same drug by accident. Suzy, I think you should tell readers how to cut down on medication errors.”
–D.W., Coconut Creek, Fla.

A: You’re fortunate that your medicine was just a lower dose, rather than the wrong drug altogether. Dispensing errors are bound to happen; pharmacists are human and some drugstores time their pharmacists to see how efficiently they work. Despite the demands for high quality customer service, and the pressure, most pharmacists have a really good track record considering that they fill thousands of prescriptions each week. (If pharmacies had the track record of my local fast food drive-thru, we’d be in deep trouble. What’s so hard about heavy mustard, no onions?)

Even though pharmacists do occasionally make a medication dispensing error, they catch, exponentially, more errors than they make. Most you never know about because by the time you’re handed your bag at the register, the pharmacist has already called to lower a potentially toxic dosage, or asked your doctor to change your medication altogether because of an allergy or potentially harmful interaction. The conversation might go something like this: “Hey, Dr. So-and-So, did you really mean Zoloft for allergies, because this drug is for depression? You meant Zyrtec instead, right?” Or, “You wrote a prescription for Mr. Puffer for Zyban, to help him quit smoking, but his psychiatrist just ordered Parnate for depression and this combination could trigger a seizure.”

To improve your safety at the pharmacy counter, follow these seven sensible steps:

1. Don’t hurry the pharmacist. Pressuring anyone who has your life, literally, in their hands is never smart. Plan ahead.

2. Get into the habit of dropping off prescriptions and coming back the next day for them. It’s considerate because it allows the pharmacist time to fill “waiting” prescriptions for people in pain who’ve just left the hospital.

3. Call your refills in at least a day ahead.

4. Have your doctor write your prescription(s) legibly. Do you think it matters if you get Plavix or Paxil? Lisinopril or Lipitor? You bet your life it does.

5. Don’t put several different pills in one bottle (or pocket). You might chug the blue pill when you meant to take the white one.

6. Stick to the same pharmacy. I know those ‘Transfer Your Prescription’ coupons are tempting, but how can your pharmacist effectively screen for interactions, or brainstorm with your physician, if some of your meds are missing from your profile?

7. Call your pharmacist immediately if there’s a change in the color, size or shape of your medications.