Medication errors are defined by the National Coordinating Council for Medication Error Reporting and Prevention as being any preventable medication error causesevent that may cause or lead to inappropriate medication use or patient harm while the medication is in the control of the health care professional, patient, or consumer. Medication errors resulting in harm to elderly patients can be caused by negligence, failure to follow directions, malice on the part of caregivers or relatives, improper labeling, and many other factors. Approximately 1.3 million people in the United States are harmed each year from incidents stemming from medication errors.

General Medication Error Causes

Common causes for medication errors by any administrator include:

  • Misreading of similarly named medications
  • Misreading of abbreviations for drugs
  • Misinterpreted quantity of prescribed medication
  • Misunderstanding of directions
  • Failure to follow all directions
  • Improper labeling of medication


Institutional Medication Error Causes

In many situations in which a medication error occurs in a nursing home or medical care facility, it is the fault of the management or staff that is issuing the medication. Staff may intentionally fail to follow directions, or may inadvertently administer the wrong medication or wrong dosage. In some cases, staff may also fail to administer a medication that has been prescribed, which may also be a medication error capable of causing injury.

Contributing Factors to Errors

In some studies, an increase in medication errors directly correlated with an increase in the number of patients that the administering staff member was expected to care for. Institutional medication errors are more likely to occur when an administrator of medications has a lack of pharmaceutical knowledge. Overtime and understaffing situations may also contribute to medication errors.

Malice or Neglect by Staff

In some scenarios, medication errors are not caused by a mistake. Malicious staff members may intentionally administer the wrong medication or a wrong dosage in an attempt to injure the patient or to make the patient easier to care for. Staff may also intentionally skip administering medication to certain patients because of time constraints.

Patient Medication Error Causes

Many medication errors are caused by patient mistakes. Elderly patients may have a multitude of different medications prescribed, and may become confused about when to take which medications. Confusion can result in missed medication, medications being taken twice, or errors in dosage and timing. In some cases, pill distribution machines may also malfunction.

Contributing Factors to Patient Errors

Patients may begin to lose cognitive function, contributing to medication errors. Patients may also begin to lose eyesight, which can cause prescription labels to be misread or misunderstood. Patients may attempt to crush, split, or mix the medication in order to make taking the medications easier, and may inadvertently contradict instructions. All of these medication errors can result in injury to the patient.

Family Medication Error Causes

Family members may be responsible for medication errors, if a family member is administering medication for an elderly patient. Family members may inadvertently misread directions, medication names, or dosages. Family members may also intentionally administer the wrong dosage or miss medications in order to steal the medications or for other malicious reasons.

Handling Medication Errors

Medication errors that occur in the United States must be reported, to help prevent future medication errors. F.D.A. reporting can help create awareness for common medication errors, and may help manufacturers to change labeling if regular misinterpretations occur. Nursing homes are also expected to maintain an error rate of less than five percent, and can be penalized if the rate is higher than this.

Patient Medication Errors

If a patient has been affected by a medication error, the patient should be given immediate medical care. An attorney may be able to help determine the party responsible for the medication error. If the patient was housed in a nursing home, the facility of staff may be accountable for the dangerous medication error. If the patient was responsible for taking the medication at home, a doctor could be responsible for improper instructions, or a drug manufacturer could be responsible for mislabeling.




“About Medication Errors.” National Coordinating Counsel for Medication Error Reporting and Prevention. National Coordinating Counsel for Medication Error Reporting and Prevention, n.d. Web. 28 Feb 2014. <>.

Cheragi, Mohammad, Human Manoocheri, et al. “Types and Causes of Medication Errors from a Nurse.”Iranian Journal of Nursing and Widwifery Research. 18(3).May-June (2013): 228-231. Web. 28 Feb. 2014. <>.

“Medication Errors.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 08 Aug 2013. Web. 28 Feb 2014. <>.