The Financial, Physical and Emotional Costs of Medication Mistakes

January 17th, 2017

“This morning I found a medicine bottle in my father-in-law’s room. It was from 2013, one of my daughter’s prescriptions. It’s a urinary incontinence medication, but since it says “oxy” on it I think he was looking for Oxycodone. We have a system, with an excel spreadsheet. However we are increasingly having to make the meds more secure. It’s a challenge.”

Paula Kiger’s tale is familiar to anyone with an aging parent. Many of us are concerned about medication misuse or mistakes or our ability to monitor our parents’ prescriptions. And, not to freak you out more, but we should be worried.

Taking medication correctly is critical to parents’ health and safety:

  • About 1 out of 10 hospital admissions are the result of the incorrect use of medications1
  • 1.5 million preventable adverse drug reactions occur each year2
  • Each day, one American dies from a medication error and 1.3 million are injured by one3

Mismanaging medications can be costly:

  • The average cost of an ambulance ride is $4294
  • The median cost of an emergency room visit is $1,2335

Improper use of medications can have serious consequences:

  • Only half of prescribed medicine are taken as directed by a doctor6
  • “Non-adherence” is most common for patients with new prescriptions for hypertension (28.4%), hyperlipidemia (28.2%), and diabetes (31.4%)7
  • Hospitalizations and death rates increase for patients with diabetes8 and cardiovascular issues9 who don’t take medications correctly

Stressing over the risk and financial realities takes its toll on caregivers:

  • Between 40 to 70 percent exhibit “clinically significant” symptoms of depression10
  • The most-stressed caregivers have shorter telomeres (molecular structures that protect DNA) than other caregivers11

While these data points are anxiety inducing, they don’t have to become your story. There are ways to reduce the impact of mismanaged medications. Here are three to start with:

1. Invest in a Medication-Dispensing Device

“We put my mom’s pills in a dispenser and monitor whether she is taking them correctly, which she is doing so far,” says Lynette Whiteman. Her 90-year-old mother, who has Alzheimer’s, lives her and her husband.

Certain dispensers enable you to customize dispensing for multiple medications; create reminders and instructions; control access to medication; and even notice when doses are missed and supplies or getting low. These products dramatically reduce your concerns about correct dosing, and may even lower costs by avoiding visits to the doctor and additional prescriptions.  Bonus: High-tech dispensers are especially helpful if your parent lives alone or is unsupervised for long periods.

2. Safeguard Others’ Medication

Carefully storing your own medication is crucial, whether you live with a curious toddler or a senior. “It’s sort of like childproofing,” Kiger says. “Until your child is walking, you only clear the coffee table of the things they can reach as a crawler. Once they are standing and ambulatory there’s a whole new level of things they can get into.”

So it’s time to senior-proof your home. Put your own medications away after using them. Secure prescriptions in a location your elders can’t reach or in a locked cabinet. Don’t leave medications in purses or backpacks within reach of seniors.

3. Take a Break

It’s easy to feel like you can’t take a moment off, but that’s not good for your health or your parents’. Investigate respite care options, adult daycare programs and drop-in centers that allow you to leave your parent in a safe environment while you tend to your own needs or just have a fun night out.

“It’s not that my husband and I want to jet off to the south of France for the weekend, but sometimes on a Friday night after a hard week at work it would be nice to be able to go out to dinner and a movie on the spur of the moment,” says Whiteman, who runs Caregiver Volunteers of Central Jersey.

Managing your parents’ medications is a vitally important task, but it doesn’t have to sap your bank account or your spirit. Follow this advice to make reduce the physical, emotional and financial costs of medication misuse and mistakes.


1Zhan C, Sangl J, Bierman AS et al. Potentially inappropriate medication use in the community-dwelling elderly: findings from the 1996 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey. JAMA. 2001; 286:2823-

2Institute of Medicine of the National Academies

3U.S. Food & Drug Administration

4U.S. Government Accountability Office

5“How Much Will I Get Charged for This?” Patient Charges for Top Ten Diagnoses in the Emergency Department

6A systematic review of the associations between dose regimens and medication compliance

7Primary Medication Non-Adherence: Analysis of 195,930 Electronic Prescriptions

8Effect of medication nonadherence on hospitalization and mortality among patients with diabetes mellitus

9Medication nonadherence is associated with a broad range of adverse outcomes in patients with coronary artery disease

10Caregiver Assessment: Voices and Views from the Field, Volume II

11Today’s Research on Aging: Family Caregiving