Medical Error brought by Medical Abbreviations

Medical Error brought by Medical Abbreviations

Medical Error brought by Medical Abbreviations

Abbreviations have been adapted throughout history due to their usefulness at saving both time and space without hindering readability of written text. They're often used in hospitals today because it allows doctors who may be unfamiliar with certain terms an opportunity to learn through reading doctor notes instead of having specific training beforehand. One major issue though is how confusing they can become if there isn't some standardization within a specific field of medicine. Abbreviations are useful for saving time and space in medical records, but the potential confusion that can arise from using abbreviations not recognized by others is a serious concern.

Doctors are routinely pressured to see more patients in a day, and the risk of improperly prescribing or committing other written errors grows exponentially. On some articles and publications, medication errors represent one leading cause for preventable morbidity and mortality within health care delivery settings and one of root cause is medical abbreviation errors. In 2005, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) adopted a list of medical abbreviations that cannot be used by any JCAHO-accredited organizations and those seeking accreditation. This is part of their 2006 National Patient Safety Goal initiative in response to the National Summit for Quality Improvement’s recommendations about these silly acronyms being too difficult to remember. 

From Archives, these are the five abbrevations that are deemed to be banned:

  • U (meant for unit), JCAHO requires U to be replaced with its full word corresponding as "unit" as it is frequently mistaken as "o" (zero), number 4 (fours), or "cc" for some reasons. 
  • IU (meant for International Unit), similar with "U", it is replaced with its corresponding full word as International Unit since it is misunderstood oftentimes as IV (intravenous) or even 10 (number ten)
  • Q.O.D./qod (every other day), from JCAHO's observations, "everyday" and "every other day" abbreviations are always mistaken by patients and caused to decide to spell out its meanings completely
  • X.o mg (trailing zero) and .X mg (lacking of leading zero), similar with previously mentioned, these abbreviations are open for mistaken understanding as it is misread its decimal points, specifically. These two are commonly used when doctors handout prescriptions or anything that requires accuracy of dose or measure.
  • MS/MSO4/MgSO4 (morphine sulfate), the abbreviation “MS” has been interpreted as morphine sulfate when it was really meant for magnesium sulphate and are completely interchanged when buying the specific medicine.

How frequent are misreading medical abbreviations?

A joint study by Royal Australasian College of Physicians and Internal Medicine Journal, three hundred and sixty-nine (76.9%) patients had one or more error-prone abbreviation used, with 8.4% having at least one such term left out that could have caused harm if not corrected by someone else checking before execution, 29% being high risk for causing significant injury due to their omission despite proper spelling as they lack definition but are commonly mistaken for other words/abbreviated terms which can cause serious problems down the line during administration.

Learn Common Abbreviations!
Medical acronyms and abbreviations are used in many different settings from doctors' offices to hospitals because there is often not enough room in written correspondence. Here are some of them:

  • cap: capsule
  • cc: cubic centimeter
  • JT: Joint
  • OU: both eyes
  • po: by mouth
  • qh: every hour
  • sx: symptoms
  • tab: tablet
  • SOB: short of breath
  • N/V: nausea or vomiting



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