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My Doctor Gave Me the Wrong Medication – Can I Sue?

If your doctor gave you the wrong medication and it caused an injury, you may be able to sue for damages. A medical malpractice lawsuit allows injured patients to get compensation for an injury caused by medical negligence. If the doctor failed to provide standard care in prescribing a medication, which caused damage or harm, the doctor may be liable for damages. After reviewing this page, if you have questions about whether you may have a case, contact a medical malpractice law firm for answers.

What Is a Wrong Medication Accident?

Millions of Americans rely on medications every day to help keep them healthy, physically well, and mentally stable. Some medications like antibiotics are prescribed for a short period. Others, including blood pressure medication or cholesterol management drugs, may be required indefinitely.  

Some of the body systems that common drugs treat include the cardiovascular system, central nervous system, Infections, gastro-intestinal systems, and endocrine systems. These drugs can have a powerful effect on the body and when there is a mistake in drug prescriptions, it can cause serious damage. 

Most patients do not know much about pharmacological sciences. Patients have to rely on the doctor’s education, training, and experience to make sure they are getting the right medication. The wrong drug, too much of a drug, or even too little of a dose can cause physical injury, delayed recovery, or death. There are supposed to be many safeguards in place to prevent wrong medication accidents but negligent medical care can leave a patient vulnerable to injury. 

Types and Causes of Prescription Errors

There are many possible causes of prescription errors. Unfortunately for the patient, they may be unaware that there even was a medication error. It may take days or weeks before the mistake is discovered. In some cases, the patient may never learn that their avoidable injury was caused by a medication mistake. Some common causes of prescription errors include: 

  • Wrong drug
  • Wrong dose
  • Wrong route of administration 
  • Wrong patient 
  • Drug name errors
  • Wrong frequency
  • Unauthorized drug use
  • Improper drug handling
  • Lack of patient monitoring
  • Poor handwriting

Medical Abbreviations and Symbols

Even experienced doctors can make a mistake over drug names. This could include using outdated medical terminology. Historically, medicine used a lot of shorthand, abbreviations, and Latin terms. Problems in deciphering this language were a cause of misunderstanding and medical errors. The U.S. has moved to standardize medical terminology and avoid abbreviations. 

The Institute for Safe Medication Practices (ISMP) is a nonprofit dedicated to preventing medication errors. The organization has created a list of error-prone abbreviations, symbols, and dose designations that should never be used when communicating medical information. Some examples from the list include: 

  • OD as “once daily” can be confused with o.d. as “right eye” (oculus dexter)
  • q1d as “daily can be mistaken as q.i.d. “four times daily”
  • I.U. as “international unit” can be mistaken for I.V. for “intravenous”

Wrong Route Drugs

Prescription medicine can be administered in a number of ways, including orally, as an injection, suppository, ear drops, topical application, or through eye drops. When a drug is administered via the wrong route, it can cause unnecessary injury or fail to provide any relief. One of the problems with abbreviations in wrong-route drug accidents includes the use of AD/AS/AU versus OD/OS/OU, with the A standing for the Latin word for ear and O for the Latin word for eye. 

Wrong Dosage Errors

Dosing errors can be fatal. Some drugs are very powerful, with only a few micrograms needed to treat the patient’s condition. A microgram (µg or mcg) is one-millionth of a gram. A milligram (mg) is one-thousandth of a gram. Giving someone a milligram instead of a microgram is like a 1,000 times dose. Dosage errors could be caused by written prescription errors, failing to fully review the medical chart, or simply not paying attention when administering the dosage. 

Even when taking medication at home, the wrong dose can have dangerous effects. Using the wrong size spoon for an oral medication can cause problems. A teaspoon is one-third of a tablespoon, and taking a tablespoon full of medication is 3 times the dosage. If you have any questions about medication dosage, talk to your doctor or pharmacist.

Wrong Medication Mistakes

The names of drugs and prescriptions can be confusing. Another problem is mixing up look-alike drug names. The FDA and ISMP created a list of look-alike drug names with recommended Tall Man Letters to differentiate the drugs. Some examples of these include: 

  • chlorproMAZINE and chlorproPAMIDE
  • clomiPHENE and clomiPRAMINE
  • predniSONE and prednisoLONE
  • methazolAMIDE and methIMAzole
  • penicillAMINE and penicillin

According to the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority, almost one out of every 4 medication errors reported was caused by confusion involving prescription names that sound alike or look alike. 

Wrong Patient Prescription

Wrong patient medication errors may occur when two or more people are sharing a hospital room. When a nurse comes around to give a patient their medicine, mixing up the patients can have dangerous effects. Similarly, a doctor may fail to properly check the individual patient, believing them to be a different patient and prescribing medication that is inappropriate or harmful. 

Wrong Frequency or Wrong Time

A simple error in writing a prescription regarding the frequency or time can cause serious injuries. Common frequency notes for drugs include once a day, four times a day, or at hourly intervals. A mix-up between once a day (abbreviated as q.d) and four times a day (q.i.d.) can quadruple the dosage. 

Unauthorized Drug Use

When a drug is approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it is generally limited to certain medical conditions or treatments. A drug is approved as safe and effective for its intended uses. In some cases, your doctor can prescribe an approved drug for an unapproved use. 

If your doctor is prescribing a drug for an “off-label” use, the doctor should make it clear that the FDA has not determined that drug to be safe and effective for an unapproved use. If the doctor prescribes a drug for off-label use without discussing it with the patient, it could put the patient at risk of other injuries. 

Improper Drug Handling

Proper drug handling procedures should be followed to ensure the drug is safe and effective as intended. Improper drug handling can cause the medication to be contaminated or lose efficacy. Some drugs need to be stored under proper temperature conditions and leaving them exposed to higher temperatures could render the drugs useless. Failure to take proper sanitation measures could lead to a severe infection. 

Failure to Monitor Patient Reaction to Medications

Part of the medical care process is to monitor a patient after prescribing medication. This may be even more important when the drug has known side effects. If the patient reports these side effects or other dangerous reactions and the doctor does not respond appropriately, it could continue to put the patient in danger. 

Illegible Prescription Forms

Even bad handwriting can be a cause of medication injuries. Thousands of patients may be suffering medical injuries because of handwriting errors. The ISMP has advocated for getting rid of the handwritten paper prescriptions and moving to electronic prescriptions. Most healthcare practitioners have access to computers for prescribing medications but some still use paper, even with illegible handwriting that can cause medication errors. 

Was the Error in the Prescription or Dispensing?

A patient may not know where the error occurred in the health care process. Generally, a drug is prescribed by a doctor, nurse, or physician’s assistant. The patient may take the prescription to get it filled by the pharmacist, and take it home and use as directed. In some cases, it may be the pharmacist that made the error, and entered in the wrong information, used the wrong pills, or filled the wrong dosage. In a medical malpractice lawsuit, your attorney can review your medical records to determine where the error occurred, or if there were multiple causes of your injuries. 

How Do I Prove the Doctor Was Responsible?

Sometimes a bad reaction to medication may simply be an unexpected error. It may be difficult for the patient to know if the medication injury was caused by negligence. This can be a complicated question to answer and may require a medical expert review. In a medical malpractice lawsuit, liability of a doctor involves a breach of the duty of care

The injury victim needs to prove the doctor owed the plaintiff a duty of care and the defendant breached the duty of care, causing injury and harm. Once the plaintiff has established that there was a doctor-patient relationship, the question of breach of care may be a question of fact left up to the jury. Doctors have a medical standard of care, based on the:

  • Degree of skill
  • Degree of care
  • Medical practice area
  • Education and training
  • Medical community

If the doctor deviated from the standard of care by doing something a reasonable doctor would not have done, and that caused an injury, the doctor may be responsible for the damages. The injury victim can use a medical expert to review the medical record, examine the discovery documents, and hear from the parties involved to make a decision. If the expert finds that the doctor breached the standard of care, the jury may have the information needed to make their decision. 

Who Else Could Have Caused a Drug Interaction Error?

Not all prescription errors are caused by the doctor. The error could have occurred when the nurse administered the drugs, when the pharmacist filled the prescription, or where the hospital failed to properly store or secure the medications. 

For example, a hospital in New Hampshire had a medical technician who would take fentanyl vials, administer the drug to himself, and refill the vials with saline solution. The tech was not supposed to have access to the drugs and had been fired from prior medical jobs after suspected drug abuse. In this type of situation, the hospital could be responsible for any injuries caused by tainted medications. 

Injuries Caused by Wrong Medication Errors

There are several ways that wrong medication errors can cause injury or death. The wrong medicine can cause a harmful drug interaction with other medications. Too high or too low of a dose could be just as harmful. Contaminated drugs or needles could lead to infection. Injuries may include: 

  • Infection shock
  • Brain damage
  • Liver damage
  • Amputation
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Blindness
  • Seizures 

Reducing the Risks of Wrong Medication Errors

Most health care professionals, doctors, and nurses know the “five rights” of prescriptions that reduce the risk of a medication error. These include: 

  • Right patient
  • Right medication
  • Right time
  • Right dose
  • Right route

However, even with these 5 rights that are supposed to reduce medication errors, they still occur. Patients can take a proactive approach to reduce the risk of harm but doctors may be difficult to communicate with when talking about even these basic questions. Steps patients can take include: 

  • Ask the name of the medication when prescribed, including the dose and how long you should take the medication.
  • Write down a list of all medications you are taking, including over-the-counter medicine, supplements, and vitamins.
  • Review the medicine labels to confirm the 5 rights.
  • Ask the doctor or pharmacist about the medicine, common side effects, and if there are any food, alcohol, or drug interactions. 

The Joint Commission, a non-profit that accredits health care organizations and hospitals, has put out a guide to help patients avoid medication mistakes called “Speak Up.” This guide provides ways the patient can take action, including: 

  • Making sure the doctors and nurses check your wristband and ask your name before administering medicine.
  • Tell your caregiver if you don’t feel well after taking medicine.
  • Read any IV fluid bag and ask questions about the drip-rate.
  • Ask about generics, how the medicine will help, and get written information about the medicine.

Unfortunately, many patients have had a bad experience with some doctors when asking questions about their care. Some doctors may fail to answer the question directly, dismiss the patient’s concerns without clarification, or simply appear too busy to have time to help the patient. 

Next Steps to File a Wrong Medication Claim

Going through medical malpractice cases can be difficult but you may feel much better about your decision after making the first phone call to an experienced law firm. Medical malpractice attorneys can answer your questions and guide you through the process. Talk to experienced trial attorneys who can review your case, get an expert’s review, and help you understand your legal options to file a claim after a wrong medication injury. Contact Gilman & Bedigian online or at 800-529-6162 for a free consultation.


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