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Patient safety

Report finds that medication errors are prevalent

WASHINGTON – Medication errors harm 1.5 million people and kill several thousand each year in the United States, costing the nation at least $3.5 billion annually, the Institute of Medicine concluded in a report released on July 20.

According to the report, titled “Preventing Medication Errors“, drug errors are so widespread that hospital patients should expect to suffer one every day they remain hospitalized, although error rates vary by hospital and most do not lead to injury, the report concluded.

The study cited the death of Betsy Lehman, a 39-year-old mother of two and a health reporter for The Boston Globe, as a classic fatal drug mix-up. Ms. Lehman died in 1993 after a doctor mistakenly gave her four times the appropriate dose of a toxic drug to treat her breast cancer.

Recommendations to correct these problems include systemic changes like electronic prescribing and tips for consumers like advising patients to carry complete listings of their prescriptions to every doctor’s visit, the report said.

“The incidence of medication errors was surprising even to us,” said J. Lyle Bootman, dean of the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy. “The solutions are complex and far-reaching and will present challenges.”

The report is the fourth in a series done by the institute, the nation’s most prestigious medical advisory organization, that has called attention to the enormous health and financial burdens brought about by medical errors.

The first report, “To Err Is Human,” was released in 1999 and caused a sensation when it estimated that medical errors of all sorts led to as many as 98,000 deaths each year – more than was caused by highway accidents and breast cancer combined.

After the first report, health officials and hospital groups pledged reforms, but many of the most important efforts have been slow to take hold. Drug computer-entry systems, which are supposed to ensure that hospital patients get the right drugs at the right dose, are used in just 6 percent of the nation’s hospitals, said Charles B. Inlander, president of the People’s Medical Society, a consumer advocacy group, and an author of the Institute of Medicine’s report .

Electronic medical records can help ensure that patients do not receive toxic drug combinations. The 1999 report urged widespread adoption of these systems. The July 20, 2006 report called for all prescriptions to be written electronically by 2010.

Just 3 percent of hospitals have electronic patient records, said Henri Manasse, chief executive of the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists. Few doctors prescribe drugs electronically. Even simple medication safety recommendations – block printing on hand-written prescription forms – are widely ignored.

Arthur Levin, director of the Center for Medical Consumers and an author of the 1999 report, said that just about everyone in the health system was to blame. “This country has not taken seriously the alarms we sounded in 1999,” Mr. Levin said. “Why?”

Health organizations defended their efforts. Alicia Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the American Hospital Association, said that since 1999 hospitals had “actively engaged in looking at using information technology to improve patient safety.”
A recent poll by the association of its members found that 92 percent intended to adopt electronic patient records, Ms. Mitchell said. But such systems are complicated and need to be built gradually, she said.