06/26/2011 11:19 am ET | Updated Aug 26, 2011

What Patients Can Do To Avoid Medication Errors

Medications are a common tool in the doctor's arsenal for treating diseases. They also appear to be a common source of harm among Americans, too.

Several new reports illustrate an unfortunate truth about medications (and health care in general): Any treatment that's strong enough to help you also has the power to harm you.

One study, from Health Services Research, looked at data on adverse drug events from 2005 to 2007. The researchers found that one-half of 1 percent of all ambulatory health care visits for adults (eg, a trip to the doctor's office or emergency department) are related to adverse drug events. Just 0.05 percent of visits may seem like a paltry proportion, but it adds up to about 4.5 million visits to the doctor each year for unwanted effects of medications.

That means adults make more visits to treat medication problems each year than they do for strep throat or pneumonia, the lead researcher told American Medical News. And remember, that's not even counting medication problems in children.

People taking six to eight medications were nearly four times as likely to make one of these visits compared to people taking no medications. Not surprisingly, older people -- who take more medications in general -- had a greater risk than younger people.

In another report discussed in American Medical News, in 2008 nearly 1.9 million hospital stays resulted in a drug-related adverse outcome. That's nearly 5 percent of such stays.

These findings offer a snapshot of medication problems sending people to the doctor, and trips to the doctor resulting in medication problems.

Unwanted effects from medicines can arise from many sources. People can take the right drug at the right dosage for the right problem, but their system simply reacts badly to the drug in an unexpected way. This means they may just be someone who encounters a known side effect that's listed in the drug information materials (which too-few people read or discuss with their pharmacist). People can also take too much of the drug, or take it the wrong way. Or they can fall victim to a bad combination of different medications.

Americans take a lot of medications for chronic health problems. And they land in the hospital in vast numbers for these problems, and while they're in there, an overtaxed staff working in a highly complex environment is at risk of giving medications in error.

Experts like to talk about how doctors, pharmacies and hospitals can reduce the numbers of people who fall victim to adverse drug effects. But I'd rather focus on what individuals can do to protect themselves.

Unfortunately, too-few experts offer the following advice: People can -- and should -- simply reduce the number of medications they need. Many of the serious and chronic diseases that require medications are preventable, like diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease and heartburn. If you exercise more, keep your weight down, eat more plant foods and less junk food and avoid smoking, you'll go a long way toward protecting yourself in the first place.

These steps can also reduce your need for antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, too, along with meditation and working on stress control techniques. (Always speak to your doctor before stopping any prescribed medications).

Medicines, and the health care providers who prescribe them, are crucial for maintaining your health when you have a disease in most cases. But as we see time and time again, it's even better not to need them for this purpose.