• 02
  • March
    2012

The science of medicine is amazing. With medication and the right team of health care professionals, doctors and nurses are able to save patients' lives. But what happens when the health care team doesn't work well together, or when the prescription the client receives is not actually what he or she needs?

We wrote a post recently about a mother who took the anti-depressant Zoloft, a drug which has been linked to several health risks for pregnant mothers and their unborn babies. Her baby was born with numerous severe birth defects. Sadly, the story we told is not the only one of its kind. Medication errors comprise 25 percent of medical malpractice, and the prescription or administration of a contraindicated drug -- giving a drug that may be dangerous to a particular patient due to that patient's condition, such as pregnancy, hypertension, diabetes, etc. -- is one of the leading types of medication error in Pennsylvania and nationwide.

In many situations, prescription errors are caused by basic, avoidable mistakes. Failure to take into account conditions in the patient that may contraindicate the medication is one. Unreadable handwriting is another of the biggest reasons patients are given the wrong prescription. Doctors have other bad habits when writing prescriptions that often lead to mistakes. Many doctors use abbreviations for dosage and timing, and they use trade names that sound similar instead of writing out the full chemical identifiers.

Those are easy mistakes to make, but mistakes that can have serious or fatal repercussions. Moreover, there are simple things that can be done to help avoid these errors. Some hospitals reported lower rates of prescription errors after integrating computers with prescription software. Many software programs force doctors to use the full names for drugs and don't allow abbreviations for dose or timing information. Programs that track patients' conditions and provide an alert if physicians prescribe contraindicated drugs can also help protect patients.

Adopting technology designed to prevent medication errors could be an excellent way for Pennsylvania hospitals to reduce the number of avoidable mistakes, but there are measures -- free measures, no less -- that doctors could implement today. If doctors took the time to review complete medical histories and write legible, complete prescriptions, they could eliminate a substantial proportion of tragic medical errors.

Given how easily life-threatening mistakes could be avoided, it's baffling every time we see a patient suffer due to preventable medication error. What will it take for some doctors to understand that a few extra minutes spent in review or a little effort spent writing a legible prescription can save a life?

Source: Financial Post, "When pills kill," Rebecca Walberg, Feb. 28, 2012