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Study Shows Alarming Rate Of Preventable Medication Errors

September 12, 2011

Researchers from Sweden have just issued an astounding report on adverse drug reactions. Roughly half of all adverse drug reactions are preventable. This is true whether the patient is in or outside of a hospital. As a Chicago medical malpractice lawyer that handles medication error cases, I was even shocked by these findings.

An adverse drug reaction is a negative, unintended response to a medication that causes harm. According to the US Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Education and Research Therapeutics, over 2 million serious adverse drug reactions occur every year. Adverse drug reactions are the 4th leading cause of death--ahead of pulmonary disease, diabetes, AIDS, pneumonia, accidents and automobile deaths. The costs associated with adverse drug reactions totals $136 billion dollars a year. For purposes of this article, a medication error is a preventable adverse drug reaction (which should not have occurred had the healthcare professional acted appropriately).

In the most recent Swedish study, researchers used seven databases from across the world for articles on adverse drug reactions that occurred during hospital stays or outpatient care. Twenty-two articles were identified and utilized. The team found that 51% of outpatient care adverse drug reactions (which then required hospitalization) were actually preventable. For elderly patients, the number was even higher; 72% of adverse drug reactions involving the elderly were preventable. The numbers are not much better for hospitals patients. Indeed, 45% of inpatient adverse drug reactions in the hospital were preventable.

Adverse drug reactions including medication errors can occur under a variety of circumstances. Some occur because the healthcare professional ordered the wrong medication. Other times, the proper medication was ordered but the wrong medication was given. Still others happen because the dosage was wrong (even though the medication was right).

Some medication errors occur because the drug taken was contraindicated. A contraindicated drug is one that should not be given to a patient for any number of reasons; these contraindicated reasons may include the drugs harmful interaction with other drugs, its risk of causing an allergic reaction to a particular patient, or its known risk of causing adverse reaction in patients with certain underlying conditions.

Medication errors are made by various health providers. Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and pharmacy technicians are all capable of making medication errors. Often times, there was a breakdown among multiple healthcare providers. A common breakdown can occur when there is a simple but catastrophic miscommunication between providers.

Although there is no way, as a patient, to avoid all mediation errors, there are some steps that can be taken to reduce the risk. For one, patients should take an active role in understanding the medicines they take (as well as a thorough understanding of their overall health). Always ask questions, particularly if there is any uncertainty about the medication that is being ordered or given. Similarly, it is often helpful to bring a trusted friend or family member to any doctor or hospital visit. That person may pick up on something that was missed or simply did not make sense.

For healthcare providers, the Swedish report and other studies on adverse drug reactions recommend employing clear and systematic safety measures. Such a system can drastically reduce the rate of adverse drug reactions. Health providers should also create an environment were errors are reported rather than hidden. These errors should be thoroughly explored, assessed, and then used as an opportunity to improve safety. These and other measures care critically important if we are going to substantially reduce the rate of medication errors in our country.

Sources Used:

Medscape, Adverse Drug Reactions Often Preventable, September 9, 2011.

US Food and Drug Administration, Preventable Adverse Drug Reactions: A Focus on Drug Interactions, Updated April 30, 2009.

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