Medication errors are among the most common of medical mistakes. Each year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) receives more than 100,000 reports of suspected medication errors from drug manufacturers, healthcare professionals, and consumers through their MedWatch reporting program.
It is not difficult to understand why. With over 20,000 prescription drugs approved by the FDA, and 66% of the adult population taking prescription drugs, many of whom take multiple prescribed medications, an estimated 4.83 billion prescriptions will be written in 2023 alone, each one vulnerable to potential error.
So, exactly what is a “medication error?” In short, an error that occurs at any time in the prescribing, filling, and dispensing process. When a medication error occurs that results in patient harm, it is called an “adverse drug event.” About half of adverse drug events are preventable, i.e., a result of a mistake made at some point in the process. It could be a physician’s failure to prescribe the appropriate medication, dose, frequency, or duration, or a transcription error by the pharmacist. A pharmacist may fail to check for potentially harmful drug interactions or allergies or may dispense the wrong quantity or the wrong form of the medication.
The root causes for medication errors are varied. Many retail pharmacists are overworked, a situation not likely to be remedied any time soon as at least one major chain pharmacy is preparing to file for bankruptcy. Today’s retail pharmacist is spread thin, not only filling prescriptions, but administering shots, manning cash registers, counseling patients, and doing insurance coverage legwork. Mail order pharmacies present their own risks, including medication errors from the sheer volume of prescriptions coupled with the relative anonymity of their clients. And, while you may think technology should save us from ourselves, over-reliance on high-tech solutions can also create an environment conducive to increased medication errors. Even failure to follow established safety protocols when dealing with certain drugs such as narcotics can lead to costly errors.
Some examples of medication errors we have seen have included a pharmacist filling the wrong prescription or providing the wrong dosage or directions. Often, a similar-sounding medication might be mistakenly provided to the patient because of pharmacist error or problems reading the physician’s handwriting. We have even learned of instances where the pharmacist has actually swapped one patient’s medication with another’s, putting the wrong name on two prescription labels.
The health consequences of such preventable errors are very real. Consider that medication errors are responsible for about 700,000 emergency room visits and 100,000 hospitalizations annually in the United States alone. At least one Johns Hopkins study that analyzed medical death rate data over an eight-year period indicated that medical errors accounted for a full third of deaths.
There are steps you can take to help reduce the risk of a medication error, including fully disclosing any medications and supplements, carefully reading the label, and not discounting any symptoms that may arise that could be due to medication. If you feel you or a loved one has suffered because of a medication error, be sure to keep the prescription bottle with the label and contents in a safe place. Consulting with knowledgeable attorneys such as the team at Thomas & Wickenheiser can help you determine next steps.