Understanding an epidemiological view of a retrospective audit of medication errors in an intensive care unit

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Background: Medication errors in the intensive care setting continue to occur at significant rates and are often associated with adverse events and potentially life-threatening repercussions. Aim/objective: The aim of this study was to (i) determine the frequency and severity of medication errors reported in the incident management reporting system; (ii) examine the antecedent events, their nature, the circumstances, risk factors, and contributing factors leading to medication errors; and (iii) identify strategies to improve medication safety in the intensive care unit (ICU). Method: A retrospective, exploratory, descriptive design was selected. Retrospective data were collected from the incident report management system and electronic medical records over a 13-month period from a major metropolitan teaching hospital ICU. Results: A total of 162 medication errors were reported during a 13-month period, of which, 150 were eligible for inclusion. Most medication errors occurred during the administration (89.4%) and dispensing phases (23.3%). The highest reported errors included incorrect doses (25.3%), incorrect medications (12.7%), omissions (10.7%), and documentation errors (9.3%). Narcotic analgesics (20%), anaesthetics (13.3%), and immunomodifiers (10.7%) were the most frequently reported medication classes associated with medication errors. Prevention strategies were found to be focussed on active errors (67.7%) as opposed to latent errors (32.3%) and included various and infrequent levels of education and follow-up. Active antecedent events included action-based errors (39%) and rule-based errors (29.5%), whereas latent antecedent events were most associated with a breakdown in system safety (39.3%) and education (25%). Conclusion: This study presents an epidemiological view and understanding of medication errors in an Australian ICU. This study highlighted the preventable nature of most medication errors in this study. Improving administration-checking procedures would prevent the occurrence of many medication errors. Approaches aimed at both individual- and organisational-level improvements are recommended to address administration errors and inconsistent medication-checking procedures. Areas for further research include determining the most effective system developments for improving administration-checking procedures and verifying the risk and prevalence of immunomodifier administration errors in the ICU as this is an area not reported previously in the literature. In addition, the impact of single- versus two-person checking procedures on medication errors in the ICU should be prioritised to address current evidence gaps.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages7
JournalAustralian Critical Care
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2023


  • Clinical decision-making
  • Critical care
  • Incident report
  • Intensive care
  • Medication errors
  • Medication safety

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