How Common Are Medication Memory Errors?

What do seniors have to say about medication mistakes?

Posted May 08, 2012

Daily Pill Dispenser

My last piece discussed the problem of medication errors, which can be expected to grow as the population ages. It offered some suggestions for learning from one’s mistakes along with strategies for reducing errors. In this piece I’d like to discuss information I got from some friends of mine.

I asked 10 people in their 60s and 70s five multiple-choice questions about their experiences, and eight of them responded (plus me makes nine out of 11). I also asked for any comments they might want to make about their experiences, and several responded with extensive comments. (For example, one person pointed out the dangers to pets, not just children, from swallowing human meds. If you weigh 20 times as much as your cat, then a human pill is like 20 cat pills.) Everyone had at least a college education; most had advanced degrees; and all have health insurance and Medicare. So a reasonable guess is that the people in the group are in better health than their peers; probably have better memories as well; and probably have done more than average to overcome memory-related medication errors.

What did I find? One person took no medications at all, and another never made a medication error. The other seven varied in how often they forgot to take their meds from two who forgot a few times a year to two who forgot once or more per week. So, sure enough, forgetting is quite common.

Taking a double dose — a potentially more serious error — was much less common. Still, five people did so once a year or less frequently.

Six people reviewed their entire schedule of medications with a medical professional during the past year, but two had never done so. Here the potential problem is one of coordination of care, and the possibility of unwanted drug interactions.

I asked whether they had discussed ways of reducing medication memory errors with a spouse, friend, or medical professional. Although four had done so within the last year, four had never done so, even though three of them had reported medication memory errors.

Finally, although three people had taken specific steps to improve compliance with their medication regimes, they felt that they needed a better system.

So, if my friends and I are any indication, a substantial proportion of people in their 60s and 70s, perhaps a quarter or a third, could benefit from devoting more attention to reducing memory errors. The aging of our generation brings with it a need for us to focus on ways to keep our aging memories from interfering with treatment compliance.

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About the Author

Jefferson M. Fish, Ph.D., is a Professor Emeritus of psychology at St. John's University. He has authored and edited 12 books, including The Myth of Race.

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