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What’s the window for passing meds before it’s considered late?

medication error, window for passing meds, medication administration, window for med pass, window for passing medications When is it a medication error?

What is the window for passing medications before it is considered late? And how late before it’s a medication error? (read previous l was Suspended to hear about my first medication error).

Thirty minutes?

We all know that a Colace scheduled at 0900 but given at 0945 shouldn’t be a med error. No possible harm could come from giving a stool softener forty five minutes after it was scheduled. And common sense says  Colace is not in the same category as insulin as far as time sensitivity.

late medications, med error, nurse nursing, medication administration window

What is late when giving meds? 30 minutes? One hour? Two hours?

However, the CMS window for all meds used to be 30 minutes before or after, for a window of one hour.

Sometimes, with five or more patients, and constant interruptions, that just isn’t possible, for even the most organized nurse on a calm day. Rushing to give meds for fear of making a medication error can lead to shortcuts and unsafe work arounds.

Lab called a nurse I was working with once for a critical lab value. I overheard the nurse say “Not now! I’m passing meds!” While most nurses would not respond that way, she was clearly feeling pressured.

So to rectify the situation, in 2013 CMS lifted it’s thirty minute rule and established new guidelines, dividing scheduled medications into time-critical and non time-critical categories. While CMS defined the categories, it mandated that facilities define which category different medication classes fall in by policy.


A. Scheduled Medications

Scheduled medications are those which are ordered to repeat in a repeated cycle of frequency, such as every day, every eight hours, every four hours.

1. Time-critical scheduled medications

These meds must be given within thirty minutes for a window of one hour, or else it causes harm or is sub-optimal in some way. These are defined by facility, but examples may include:

  • Antibiotics
  • Anticoagulants
  • Insulin
  • immunosupressives
  • Anticonvulsants
  • Medications prescribed more frequently than every four hours
  • Scheduled (not prn) opioid pain medications

2. Non time-critical scheduled medications

Medications where early or delayed administration up to one or two hours will not cause harm or be sub-optimal.

a.  These meds must be given within one hour before or after for a two hour window.

Medications which are ordered more frequently than daily, but not more frequently than every four hours. This would include your bid medications.

b. These meds must be given within two hours before or after the scheduled time for a four hour window.

Medications which are ordered daily, weekly, or monthly. This would include your Colace.

B. Non-scheduled medications

By contrast to scheduled medications, non-scheduled medications are not ordered to repeat.

These are defined by facility, but examples may include:

  •  Stat doses
  • One-time doses
  • Loading doses
  • Prn doses

Furthermore, CMS said that facilities must identify parameters within which nurses are allowed to use professional judgment regarding the rescheduling of missed or late doses, and what actions should be taken when scheduled meds are not given within the window. This includes all reasons, such as patient off the unit, patient refusal, missing meds, or other reasons.

Medication errors that result from missed or late administration must be reported to the provider.

Finally, policies must outline guidelines for the timing of new medications which are initiated between standardized dosing times.

This article links to First Day off of Orientation

As always, know and follow your facility’s policies. Hope this is helpful! Until next time friend,

Nurse Beth

AuthorYour Last Nursing Class: How to Land Your First Nursing Job..and your next!” 

Come visit me at Ask Nurse Beth career column at for all kinds of  entertaining and informative career questions and answers, and to submit your own question :)




About Beth Hawkes (146 Articles)
Nice to meet you! I'm a Nursing Professional Development Specialist in acute care, a writer, speaker and career columnist.

1 Comment on What’s the window for passing meds before it’s considered late?

  1. My wife has Parkinson’s and the nurses and CNA’s seem to know very little about being on time with Parkinson’s meds. It seems like they are all under the impression that it’s OK to be an hour or half hour early or late with meds. My wife needs her Parkinsons meds every 2 1/2 hours or she is not able to do anything for an hour or more after her meds finally arrive.
    There should be State rules or laws for Assisted Living places to give the meds as close to the time proscribed as possible!!

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