Nurses Rx: Medication Administration

From George Indest’s Nursing Law Manual

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 mistakes when carrying out essential job duties like 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 are usually the front-line health care providers who are required to administer medications prescribed by physicians (and often the most potent medications to critically ill patients), they must be especially careful in their procedures and practices to avoid one of the many types of common medication errors. The most common types of medication errors include:

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.


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.


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.


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.


The nurse in Fleming v Baptist General Convention, 742 P.2d 1087 (Okla. 1987), 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


There is a checklist every nurse should learn called the “Seven Rights of Medication.” If this checklist is memorized and followed in every case, medication errors would be significantly reduced or eliminated altogether. Every nurse and nursing student should memorize this list and go through it in her mind every time a patient is administered a medication by the nurse.

Always check for and confirm:

1. The right medication;

2. The right patient;

3. The right dose;

4. The right time;

5. The right route;

6. The right reason; and

7. The right documentation;

The nurse may be the last wall of defense to protect a patient from a medication error. The nurse should avoid at all costs, being rushed, tired, inattentive, sloppy, or lazy. Guard at every turn against medication errors. For more information about nursing law, or to read more from the Nursing Law Manual, visit

DEA Offers New Prescription Drug Return Policy

3 Indest-2009-2By George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law

Looking to improve the prescription drug abuse epidemic in the United States, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced September 8, 2014, that it would permit patients to return their unused prescription medications to pharmacies. This new rule, covering all types of prescription drugs, will give patients the option of mailing unused prescriptions to an authorized collector using packaging provided by the pharmacy.

Hopefully this will help to eliminate many of the problematic situations that pharmacists and physicians found themselves in when they accumulated returned or unused medications from patients for destruction.

This move intends to address the rising number of injuries and deaths associated with controlled substance drugs, particularly opioids. Reducing the stockpile of unneeded prescription drugs from American homes will limit teenagers’ accessibility to their parents’ medications and reduce burglaries for such substances. According to The New York Times, this demographic is known to be the most prevalent abuser of such controlled substances.

To read the full story from The New York Times, click here.

Prior Methods of Prescription Drug Disposal.

Under the Controlled Substances Act, patients were only allowed to dispose of unused drugs themselves or surrender them to law enforcement. Personal disposal of controlled substances typically means flushing pills down a toilet or throwing them in the trash. Because this can pose a risk toward animals and clean drinking water, these methods are frowned upon by environmentalists and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Drug “take back” programs are another option when it comes to disposing of unused prescription drugs. These events are organized by the DEA and are held twice a year at local police departments across the country. During these programs, citizens can anonymously drop off any unused prescription drugs. According to The Wall Street Journal, the Department of Justice (DOJ) reported that a nationwide event in April 2014 brought in 390 tons of prescription drugs at more than 6,000 sites. In the past four years, these collection events have removed from circulation more than 4.1 million pounds of prescription medication from across the country.

Although these events prove successful, many healthcare professionals are optimistic for the bigger impact the pharmacy “take back” programs may have. Providing consumers convenient year-round access to medication disposals will be positive reinforcement to regularly dispose of unused prescription medications. This method is believed to be more likely to accomplish the mission of shrinking the pool of unused and potentially fatal controlled substances in American homes.

To read the full article from The Wall Street Journal, click here.

Ironing Out Details of the New Plan.

There are many logistics to consider to ensure these pharmaceutical “take back” programs will be successful. The programs will not be mandatory, as the decision to take part will be the under the sole discretion of each company. The pharmacies must voluntarily choose to register with the DEA in order to start receiving the leftover prescriptions. In the past, pharmacies have not generally wanted to accept the hassle of offering such a program. However, the DEA expects many pharmacies to jump on the bandwagon to showcase good-faith effort of keeping drugs out of the wrong hands.

DEA-approved organizations collecting the unused drugs will include hospital pharmacies, narcotic treatment programs, and companies contracted by other collectors to destroy controlled substances.

There are concerns circling the initiative. Some pharmacies do not have the resources required to accommodate incinerators, thus limiting the locations available to consumers. In addition, professionals are concerned with the lack of regulations listed in the new plan. There are no set requirements on how the prescriptions should be destroyed. The rules simply mandate that the drugs are altered into a permanent, irreversible state.

The burden of payment has also not been discussed or outlined in the new plan. Who will cover the cost of packaging and disposal has yet to be decided. Also, to be considered is the challenge of keeping the returned prescriptions safe until destruction. An unsecured, unmonitored return site containing stock piles of addictive drugs would be a gold mine for many addicts and criminals. Should a theft occur at one of these drop-off receptacles, who would be held liable? The American Pharmacists Association has already expressed concern of pharmacy legal liability.

The biggest obstacle of all, however, may be convincing the general public that returning unused pills is a necessary moral obligation.


Would you participate in this type of prescription drug return program? As a pharmacist or someone who works at a pharmacy, what are your concerns with this take back program? Please leave any thoughtful comments below.

Consult With A Health Law Attorney Experienced in the Representation of Pharmacists and Pharmacies.

We routinely provide deposition coverage to pharmacists, pharmacies and other health professionals being deposed in criminal cases, negligence cases, civil cases or disciplinary cases involving other health professionals. We can review business referral arrangements and provide legal counsel on whether they are not in violation of federal and state anti-referral laws. The lawyers of The Health Law Firm are experienced in both formal and informal administrative hearings and in representing physicians, physician assistants and other health professionals in investigations and at Board of Pharmacy hearings.

To contact The Health Law Firm, please call (407) 331-6620 and visit our website at


Barrett, Devlin. “U.S. to Allow Pharmacies to Take Back Unused Prescription Drugs.” The Wall Street Journal. (September 08, 2014). From:

Saint Louis, Catherine. “D.E.A. to Allow Return of Unused Pills to Pharmacies.” The New York Times. (September 08, 2014). From:

About the Author: George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., is Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law. He is the President and Managing Partner of The Health Law Firm, which has a national practice. Its main office is in the Orlando, Florida area. The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Ave., Altamonte Springs, FL 32714, Phone: (407) 331-6620.

“The Health Law Firm” is a registered fictitious business name of George F. Indest III, P.A. – The Health Law Firm, a Florida professional service corporation, since 1999.
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