March 13-19, 2016 marks Safety Awareness Week. It encourages both patients and healthcare professionals to take a role in promoting patient safety. This is an appropriate message, because it takes everyone working together to make care as safe as possible for patients, families, and the healthcare professionals who provide this care.

My oldest daughter, Emily, is an RN working on an acute geriatrics floor. She is also working on her master’s degree in nursing. My youngest daughter, Elaine, is in her sophomore year studying nursing.  Both are taking pharmacology courses this semester. They discuss what they are covering in class together. Emily encourages Elaine that she can master pharmacology and that there is always more to learn. Both are finding these courses very challenging, and both clearly understand that they need to learn and retain this content if they want to be excellent nurses. This is the attitude that is necessary for good, safe patient care.

Pharmacology is critical knowledge for nurses. Nurses administer medications after considering that the patient does not have any contraindications to the medication and that it will likely have the therapeutic effect. They teach patients how to take these medications. Just because there is an order for a medication, it does not mean it is safe to give. Medication systems have many safeguards to reduce errors, but they are not perfect. They cannot replace comprehensive patient assessment and critical thinking from all involved in medication administration.

There are considerations for administering medications. Before a nurse administers medication, they need to check to be sure it’s the right patient, the right medication, the right dose, the right route, the right time, and the right reason. After administration, the nurse needs to check for the right response to the medication. Many medications require additional checks such as heart rate or blood pressure. To do this correctly, it takes time and thought. This is a lot of responsibility for the nurse.

In addition to all of the components of safe administration, nurses teach patients about medications. They teach them how to take medications, and they instruct them on the purpose. They describe the intended therapeutic effect. They inform the patients of side effects, especially side effects that demand immediate attention. They teach patients how to advocate for themselves and when to speak up to promote medication safety.

Physicians, pharmacists, nurses, and patients need to work together to optimize safety. When everyone works together the system runs well, and it runs best when patients have adequate knowledge about their medications and are active participants in promoting medication safety. Safety awareness isn’t just for a week, it’s a year-round challenge.