Drug Errors: An All-Too-Common Problem

More than 1 in 10 patients suffer injuries in the course of their medical care with half of those injuries being preventable. Among the preventable errors, 12 percent lead to a patient’s permanent disability or death, according to a meta-analysis of systemic review of medical acre published in July of 2019. [1]

The study, which analyzed data on more than 300,000 patients from over 70 scientific studies, highlights the severity of medical mistakes. Incidents relating to drugs and other therapies account for 49 percent of injuries, and injuries relating to surgical procedures account for 23 percent. While the study is not limited to the United States, the authors of the study state the findings apply to medical care in the United States.

The findings of the study, while concerning, are not surprising unfortunately. A landmark 2016 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University reveals medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States, trailing only heart disease and cancer.[2] We’ve written about this issue before, but the data continue to point to the severity of the problem.  

Drug errors are a particularly significant issue. As the study above highlights, drug mistakes are a leading cause of medical injuries. Drug errors cause more than one million serious injuries or deaths in the United States every year.[3] Our office has handled many cases where a patient was given the improper dosage of a medication. We have also handled cases where a patient was prescribed a drug with significant, even fatal, side effects.

A drug error can happen at any point in the prescription process from the time the drug is prescribed to the time the drug is given. Most often, the error is by a nurse or doctor, but at times a pharmacist makes a mistake in filling or dispensing the prescription.

How to Prevent Drug Errors

Patients should pay close attention to what their doctor or pharmacist tells them about the drug they are taking, the correct dosage, and any potential side effects. A patient should ask questions if there is any aspect of the instructions that he or she does not understand. Patients should tell doctors the names of all prescription drugs, over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, and vitamin supplements they are taking to avoid potentially dangerous interactions.

Above all else, be an advocate for yourself.


[1] Panagioti M, Khan K, Keers RN, et al., Prevalence, Severity, and Nature of Preventable Patient Harm Across Medical Care Settings: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. BMJ. 2019;366:l4185, available at https://www.bmj.com/content/bmj/366/bmj.l4185.full.pdf.

[2] Medical Errors Are No. 3 Cause of U.S. Deaths, Researchers Say. NPR. May 3, 2016, available at  https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/05/03/476636183/death-certificates-undercount-toll-of-medical-errors.

[3] Pharmaceutical Errors. Justia, accessed Sept. 18, 2019, available at https://www.justia.com/injury/medical-malpractice/common-types-of-medical-malpractice/medication-errors/.

Bo Frith