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Medication Errors and their Toll on the American Public

Guest Author - A. Maria Hester, M.D.

According to a recent report issued by the Institute of Medicine, the average hospitalized patient may be subject to at least one medication error each day. This is quite alarming considering the high potential for certain medications to interact with each other in a deadly manner, not to mention the potential for a catastrophic outcome due to suboptimal treatment of the underlying condition.

The Institute?s report also estimates that a single drug error, if serious enough, can add close to $6,000 to a single hospital bill. For those who are uninsured or who have a significant deductible or co-pay, this error can be extremely traumatic financially as well as physically.

If hospitals actually commit the estimated 400,000 drug errors each year, that adds up to close to $3.5 billion dollars. Since at least 25% of medication errors are preventable, citizens and insurance companies may be spending close to $1 billion each year in direct, out-of-pocket costs for these mistakes. A prior estimate puts the number of deaths from medication errors at 7,000 per year.

In addition to hospital errors, there are countless errors that occur outside of the hospital setting in the doctor?s office, in the pharmacy, or even by patients themselves. When taken as a whole, the impact of medication errors on Americans is believed to be close to 1.5 million injuries per year.

However, before trying to overhaul the American health care system in its entirety, which is not realistic, let?s take a look at some things that contribute to these errors in order to try to understand how they occur and what you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones from a serious medication error.

One glaring reason for the high number of medication errors is the number of medications prescribed each year. Close to 10,000 prescription drugs are currently on the market and there are an additional 300,000 over-the-counter drugs as well. To add an additional layer of complexity, many medications have varying dosages and instructions based on which condition the drug is being used for (many drugs can treat more than one condition), the age of the patient, the function of her liver and kidneys, and so on. Even Albert Einstein could not keep up with the mind-boggling number of potential drug dosages, complications, and potential drug-to-drug interactions.

Yet another problem is that patients often do not remember important details about their medications, such as the brand name AND generic name and thus, when they get their prescriptions refilled they sometimes take duplicate doses of the same pills. Different drug companies can make the same drug and package it entirely differently. If pharmaceutical company A wants to make the drug round and yellow while pharmaceutical company B opts to make the same drug green and triangular the unsuspecting consumer may take a dose of the left over pills as prescribed not realizing that the prescription she just got filled is the exact same medication though it looks very different. This is especially likely to occur if one prescription is the brand name and the refill is the generic equivalent, if the drug is prescribed by more than one doctor, or if the patient uses two different pharmacies.

Tips to protect you from medication errors:
1. Keep a list of your medications, including the name of the doctor who prescribed each medication, generic and brand names (when in doubt, ask your pharmacist), dosage, frequency with which you take it, and why you take it. On the back of this sheet make a list of all of our chronic medication problems, such as diabetes or hypertension. Keep this list in your wallet at all times. You never know when you will need to make an unexpected visit to the emergency room.
2. Make a list of side effects of your medications
3. When prescribed a new medication make sure you remind your physician which drugs you are allergic to and which drugs cause side effects. (All side effects are not considered true drug allergies).
4. When you are in the hospital, make sure ask the nurse the name of each medication you are given and why it was prescribed.
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Content copyright © 2015 by A. Maria Hester, M.D.. All rights reserved.
This content was written by A. Maria Hester, M.D.. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Patricia Villani, MPA, PhD for details.


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