I had read the order carefully, looked up the medication, and consulted with a pharmacist before giving it. Signing the medication administration record (MAR), I re-read the order. I did not see the same dose I read the first time.
Immediately, the blood rushed up from my feet to my ears, and I was lost in pounding waves of white noise. I made a med error! A serious one! I didn't say these words out loud. Instead, I placed the patient's chart and the empty, pre-filled syringe in front of the charge nurse. "I think I just made a med error -- a bad one. Look at the order and the syringe. What did I do?" She read the order and examined the syringe. "You gave the right dose. You didn't make a med error. Now breathe." The pounding breakers of white noise subsided into the gentle lapping of my breathing.
Medication errors are potentially heart stopping: figuratively for nurses, verily for patients. Oncology nurses have the added stress of routinely administering medications with a lower therapeutic index and narrower safety margins to patients willingly offering their venous access.¹ They have faith in their oncology nurse's ability to treat them safely.
In nursing school, I had an instructor who said that she'd never, ever, in 30 years, made a medication error. Never. And I was young, shiny, and idealistic enough to believe her. So when I made a medication error as a new-grad, I was sure that I was not cut out for nursing.
Fortunately, soon afterwards, I met one of the best nurses ever. I confided in her that I considered quitting, because I made med errors, and that my instructor never had. She laughed. “If that instructor never made a med error, then I'm thinking she's too dumb to catch them. You are so crazy. Let me tell you about med errors..." She was a great nurse, not a perfect one.
While all nurses make medication errors, our goal is to develop strategies to avoid them:
- Always check chemotherapy orders beyond the five rights of medication administration. We standardized our double check into a checklist developed from the ONS Safe Handling of Chemotherapy and Biotherapies Handbook. It includes monitoring lab values, confirming appropriate regimen, lifetime dose (if applicable), calculating the correct volume of medication in solution, and more.
- Don't rely on memory: Look it up. Pharmacists are also a resource.
- Consult with more experienced nurses, but don't rely on their memory either. Look it up.
- Do not allow interruptions during a chemotherapy check. This is not a time for multitasking.
- Maintain current chemotherapy education.
Despite precautions, errors will still occur. Owning them is the quickest way to move past a bad experience. Supporting a culture of safety in the workplace increases rates of both error reporting and prevention. Colleagues should extend support to one another.
Does your institution have a "culture of safety"? What advice would you add regarding error prevention? What experiences would you share?
- Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing