Hospital Medication Errors—What the Patient Doesn’t Know

Despite efforts by the government and conscientious health-care facilities to promote the proper prescribing and administration of medicine, the incidence of hospital medication errors is more frequent than believed, according to new research published in the journal Critical Care Medicine.

Possibly even more disappointing is that patients and their families often aren’t told when such a mistake occurs.

As described in a story on, the study found that when an error occurred, not only weren’t the people affected notified, more than half the time no corrective action was taken after the mistake was discovered.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore analyzed nearly 840,000 medication errors that happened in 537 hospitals across the country. Both regular care wards and intensive care units (ICUs) were studied. More than 750,000 errors were reported, and more than 9 in 10 of them occurred in wards other than intensive care. So the sheer number of mistakes doesn’t necessarily appear to be a matter of the urgency or extreme condition of the patient.

But the gravity of the errors does appear to be related to critical conditions. Mistakes that caused the most harm or resulted in the patient’s death did occur in the ICU at twice the rate of non-ICU wards.

“Consideration should be given to developing additional safeguards against ICU errors,” the study authors concluded, “particularly during drug administration, and eliminating barriers to error disclosures.”

As explained by AboutLawsuits, the data was collected for the years between 1999 and 2005 from MEDMARX, a program for anonymous, confidential reporting of medication errors. It’s a self-reported system, which makes the results of this study even more alarming. How many errors weren’t reported because they didn’t have to be?

Most of the mistakes happened when the medicine was being administered, as opposed, for example, to a contaminated or missed medicine, although failing to give a patient a scheduled medicine was common.

The most harmful errors involved problems with a dispensing device, such as an IV line. Giving someone the wrong dose also was a significant problem.

Although patients and their loved ones often weren’t told that a medication mistake had been made, neither was 1 in 3 hospital staff members who had made the mistake, at least not immediately after they’d done so.

To learn more about the types of medication errors, see our backgrounder. To learn how to protect a loved one in the hospital, see my newsletter here. To learn how to have or help someone have a safer hospital experience, see my newsletter here.

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