How Can Hospitals Prevent Medication Errors?

As has been discussed on this blog before, medication errors are a serious and unfortunately common form of medical malpractice. Medication error refers to a number of different things. Medication error can be said to have occurred when a medical professional administers the wrong medication, the wrong dosage of a medication, mislabels medication, prescribes medication without considering allergies or negative interactions with other medications, or when a patient is not warned about harmful side effects of medication. Medication errors are especially harmful because they can exacerbate whatever problem that the patient needs treated. In the worst cases, it can lead to permanent harm or even the death of a patient. For these reasons, hospitals work to try to prevent medication errors.

How Common are Medication Errors?

Since 1992, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has received nearly 30,000 reports of medication errors. It’s assumed that, since these reports are voluntary, the true number of medication errors which occur is much higher. Additionally, because the term medication error is so widely defined, it’s extremely difficult to estimate the true rate at which it occurs. Unfortunately, it’s terrifyingly easy for a medication error to occur. In one case, a patient died because 20 units of insulin was abbreviated as “20 U,” but the “U” was mistaken for a zero and a lethal dose of 200 units of insulin was administered. In another case, one patient was given another patient’s prescription for the blood thinner warfarin before developing a fatal hemorrhage and dying.

What Causes Medication Errors?

Generally, these types of medication errors occur because of poor communication. Whether it’s misunderstood handwriting, drug name or dosage confusion, mistakes interpreting packaging, labeling, or just a general lack of knowledge on the part of the medical professional, the opportunities for mistakes based on poor communication and misunderstandings are all-too-frequent. Unfortunately, these simple mistakes, though easy to make, can have horrible consequences.

What’s Being Done to Prevent Medication Errors?

A group of more than 25 national and international organizations, including the FDA, called the National Coordinating Council for Medication Error Reporting and Prevention examines and evaluates preventable medication errors and recommends strategies for preventing them in the future. One effective strategy for preventing medication errors is through regulation. After a report from the Institute of Medicine was released in 1999 which showed that 7,000 deaths per year are related to medications, the U.S. health system began to implement error reduction strategies and strengthened error-preventing checks and balances.

Additionally, the Department of Health and Human Services formed the Quality Interagency Coordination Task Force which issued an action plan to reduce medical errors generally. One aspect of this is that the FDA dedicated more resources to drug safety, including forming a new division on medication errors in 2002. This new division got to work by instituting bar code label rules which required bar codes on certain drugs and products. These bar codes ensured that the right drug in the right dose and route of administration is given to the right patient at the appropriate time. In this way, we can also see how technology is helping to decrease the rate of medication errors in hospitals.

The Results of These Efforts

Regulatory and technological improvements have had some significant benefits for patients. For example, after the Department of Veterans Affairs made the switch to bar codes in their hospitals, they saw a drastic reduction in medication errors. In one VA hospital in Topeka, Kansas, bar coding reduced the medication error rate by 86 percent over a nine-year period. Similar regulations are being implemented to reduce drug name confusion, reduce drug labeling errors, and other forms of communication-based medication errors.

Contact Us

If you or a loved one believe you may have experienced a medication error or other form of medical malpractice, don’t hesitate to contact the experienced malpractice attorneys at Nelson MacNeil Rayfield. With over 70 collective years of legal and trial experience, we’ll answer any questions you may have over the phone or during a free consultation. 


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