The Eighth Leading Cause of Death in the U.S. is…

Health and Healthcare CategoryThe eighth leading cause of death in the U.S. is medication error. This statistic may surprise you. Other frightening statistics include the following:

* 7,000 deaths occur each year that are directly attributable to medication errors.
* Errors occur around 1 in 5 times that medication is administered.
* The FDA estimates 1 death per day due to medication errors.

The three most common errors are giving an improper dose, giving the wrong drug, and giving the drug by the wrong route (for example, intravenous instead of oral).

MistakesEveryone involved in health care is aware of errors and know that they occur more often than they should. The question then becomes:

If it is known that errors are happening, what can be done to prevent them?

Nursing personnel are the front-line staff most often responsible for administering medications to patients. Any factor that decreases the effective functioning of nursing staff will impact how safely nurses can perform their duties.

The nursing shortage impacts nursing care in a negative way. A shortage of nursing staff translates to fewer nurses to care for the same amount of patients. The shortage of nurses also means that nurses are working overtime more often, and coming in to work on their days off more often. Nurses often work in excess of 12 hours a day. All of these factors add up to fatigue and stress, a double whammy when it comes to human error.

Hospitals are now turning to technology to attempt to decrease hospital medication errors. Computer-generated prescriptions cut down on errors that occur in transcribing doctor’s orders. In some centers, nurses are being provided with hand-held computers that contain drug information on dosing, routes, and adverse effects. Medications are being provided in single-dose packaging, and drugs that have names similar to other drugs are packaged differently and include clearer labeling. Dangerous medications are signed for by two staff members instead of one (for example, insulin, narcotics, and anticoagulants). Abbreviations that are dangerous or misleading have been abolished in some cases.

Patients are now becoming more educated about their medications, their conditions, and their treatment, but too many still blithely accept medications and treatments without asking questions of health care personnel. All too often, patients are not aware of the names, correct doses, and prescribing reasons behind the medications they are on. Questioning medical personnel about their medications and why they are being given these medications is one way that patients can help safeguard themselves.

The nursing shortage is not likely to end any time in the near future. Decreasing the risk of medication errors is the job of all medical personnel who care for patients. Doctors can do their part by writing (or printing) orders legibly and clearly stating their orders with no ambiguity. Nursing staff who administer medications need to take advantage of all technology available that may help them do their jobs more safely. Finally, patients need to be their own best advocates by being fully aware of their treatment plan and medications. If a patient is unable to understand, a family member or friend can take on this role.

To err is human but, by working together, hospital personnel can help reduce the staggering statistics of medication error.


Kramer, J.S., Hopkins, P.J., Rosendale, J.C., Garrelts, J.C., Hale, L.S., Nester, T.M., Cochran, P., Eidem, L.A., Haneke, R.D. (2007). Implementation of an electronic system for medication reconciliation. American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy, 64(4), 404-422. DOI: 10.2146/ajhp060506

Jennifer Bunn, RN

Jennifer Bunn, RN, is a registered nurse who has been practicing for over 15 years.
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