Nurses face a busy schedule often including a long list of patients and extensive work hours. As a result, they can become overworked and overtired, which may lead to a higher risk of making a mistake when administering medication.
An Institute of Medicine (IOM) report titled To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System (IOM, Dec. 1999) states the deaths from medication errors that take place both in and out of hospitals, more than 7,000 annually, exceed those from workplace injuries. In a separate report, investigation by the Chicago-Tribune states that since 1995, at least 1,720 hospital patients have died and 9,548 others have been injured because of mistakes made by RN’s across the country (Associated Press, Sept. 10, 2000).
Because nurses usually are the front-line health care providers who are required to administer medications prescribed by physicians, they must be especially careful in their procedures and practices to avoid one of the many types of common medication errors.
Common types of medication errors involve:
1. similar sounding medication name;
2. administration without a prescription;
3. the wrong medication;
4. the wrong dosage;
5. negligent injection;
6. failure to note an order change;
7. failure to administer medication;
8. failure to discontinue medication;
9. use of an unsterile needle;
10. the wrong patient;
11. allergic reactions; and
12. failure to assure patient taking medications.
Nurses are required to handle and administer a vast variety of drugs that are prescribed by physicians and dispensed by an organization’s pharmacy. Medications may range from aspirin to esoteric drugs that are administered through intravenous solutions. These medications must be administered in the prescribed manner and dose to prevent serious harm to patients. There are a variety of ways to ensure that, as a nurse, you are helping to prevent medication errors within your facility.
Use this checklist from George Indest’s Nursing Law Manual in order to maintain safe administration procedures. Nurses are exempted from the various pharmacy statutes when administering a medication on the oral or written order of a physician. However, the improper administration of medications can lead to malpractice suits.
ADMINISTRATION OF CONTROLLED MEDICATIONS WITHOUT A PRESCRIPTION
A nurse should never administer prescription medications without a valid prescription or order from a physician. In effect, doing that constitutes practicing medicine without a medical license and is beyond the scope of a nurse’s license. Administering medications without approval may give rise to legal liability and disciplinary action against the nurse.
ADMINISTERING THE WRONG MEDICATION
The injection of the wrong medication into a patient can lead to civil liability or to a charge of substandard nursing care made to the Department of Health. A nurse who prepares medication for a physician is liable for the preparation of that medication. A physician can blame a nurse who fails to prepare the medication properly in order to escape liability.
In the case of Ambercrombie v. Roof, a solution was prepared by a nurse employee and injected into the patient by a physician, 28 N.E. 2d 772 (Ohio 1940). The physician made no examination of the fluid, and the patient suffered permanent injuries as a result of the infection. An action was brought against the physician for malpractice. The patient claimed that the fluid injected into her was alcohol and that the physician should have recognized its distinctive odor. The court, in finding for the physician, stated that the physician was not responsible for the misuse of drugs prepared by the hospital, unless the ordinarily prudent use of his faculties would have prevented injury to the patient.
GIVING THE WRONG DOSAGE
A nurse is responsible for making an inquiry if there is uncertainty about the accuracy of a physician’s medication order in a patient’s record. A nurse who is in doubt about a physician’s orders should contact that physician and seek clarification of their order.
In Fleming v Baptist General Convention, 742 P.2d 1087 (Okla. 1987), a nurse negligently injected the patient with a solution of Talwin and Atarax subcutaneously, rather than intramuscularly. The patient suffered tissue necrosis as a result of the improper injection. The suit against the hospital was successful. On appeal, the court held that the jury’s verdict for the plaintiff found adequate support in the testimony of the plaintiff’s expert witness on the issues of nursing negligence and causation.
FAILURE TO NOTE AN ORDER CHANGE
A nurse’s failure to review a patient’s record before administering a medication, to ascertain whether an order has been modified, may render a nurse liable for negligence.
FAILURE TO ADMINISTER MEDICATION
In Kallenberg v. Beth Israel Hospital, 357 N.Y. S.2d 508 (N.Y. App. Div. 1974), a patient died after her third cerebral hemorrhage because of the failure of the physicians and staff to administer necessary medications. When the patient was admitted to the hospital, her physician determined that she should be given a ceratin drug to reduce her blood pressure and make her condition operable. For some unexplained reason, the drug was not administered. The patient’s blood pressure rose, and after a hemorrhage, she died.
The jury found the hospital and physicians negligent in failing to administer the drug and ruled that the negligence had caused the patient’s death. The appellate court found that the jury had sufficient evidence to decide that the negligent treatment had been the cause of the patient’s death.
FAILURE TO DISCONTINUE A MEDICATION
A health care organization will be held liable if a nurse continues to inject a solution into a patient after noticing its ill effects. Once something is observed to be wrong with the administration of the medication, the nurse has a duty to discontinue its use.
The blood donor in Brown v. Shannon West Texas Memorial Hospital, 222 S.W. 2d 248 (Tex. 1949), sought to recover from a serious injury allegedly caused by the use of a nonsterile needle. The court held that the burden of proof was on the plaintiff to show, by competent evidence, that the needle was contaminated when used and that it was the proximate cause of the alleged injury. The mere proof, said the court, that infection followed the use of the needle or that the infection possible could be attributed to the use of an unsterile needle was insufficient. If the plaintiff had been able to prove the needle was not sterile, then the plaintiff would have recovered damages.
It is of utmost importance to check each patient’s name bracelet before administering any medication. To ensure that the patient’s identity corresponds to the name on the patient’s bracelet, the nurse should address the patient by name when approaching the patient’s bedside to administer any medication. Especially in nursing homes and hospitals where there may be more than one patient in a room, this is exceptionally important. Should the nurse unwittingly administer one patient’s medication to a different patient, the attending physician should be notified and appropriate documentation placed on the patient’s chart.
Any adverse reactions to a medication should be charted on the patient’s medical record. The attending physician and the facility’s pharmacy should be advised as to the patient’s allergic reaction.
FAILURE TO MONITOR AND ENSURE PATIENT TAKING MEDICATIONS
A nurse normally has a duty to monitor and ensure that a patient is taking their medications. A failure to perform this act can lead to nursing negligence on the part of the nurse.
The nurse may be the last wall of defense to protect a patient from a medication error. Guard at every turn against medication errors. For more information about nursing law, or to read more from the Nursing Law Manual, visit www.TheHealthLawFirm.com.