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Fox News has recently reported that more than 1.5 million Americans are injured every year by drug errors in hospitals, nursing homes and doctor’s offices. That number has the potential to be even higher if patients’ own medication mix-ups were added to the mix. A staggering report from Instiute of Medicine has called for major steps to increase patient safety when dealing prescription drugs.

Heading the list of recommendations is that all prescriptions should be written electronically by 2010. The report also noted that at least a quarter of all medication-related injuries are preventable. Stunningly, the study found that, on average, a hospitalized patient is subject to at least one medication error per day. As for death directly related to these drug errors, the report did not have any exact figured, but a rather conservative 1999 estimate put the number at 7,000 per year. The number of serious injuries from drug errors is unkown.

Likewise, the financial costs associated with these errors are mammoth. A drug error can add more than $5,800 to the hospital bill of a single patient. If one calculates that hospitals commit 400,000 preventable drug errors each year, that’s $3.5 billion. Of course, this figure does not take into account lost productivity and other costs.

Just how hard is it to combat these errors? If you look at the sheer volume and complexity of today’s medications, there are more than 10,000 prescription drugs on the market, and 300,000 over-the-counter products. A large majority come with vastly different usage and dosing instructions depending on the patient’s age, weight and other risk factors, like a failing liver. Four of every five U.S. adults take at least one medication or dietary supplement every day; almost a third take a least five. In other words, the more one takes, the greater the risk of taking two that interact badly.

Another common cause of drug errors is bad handwriting by physicians, like when a pharacist has to determine whether a prescription is in millgrams or micrograms. Also the report found that sound-alike drug names also lead to confusion, for example the hormone Premarian or the antibiotic Primaxin.

Additional recommendations by the report included:

— The government should take action to speed electronic prescribing, including fostering technology improvements so that the myriad computer programs used by doctors, hospitals and drugstore are compatible.

— Health workers must take steps to fully inform patients about medication use, including checking every drug they use before prescribing a new one.

— The nation should invest about $100 million annually on research into drug errors and how to prevent them. Among the most-needed studies is the impact of free drug samples, which often lack proper labeling on medication safety.

— The Food and Drug Administration should improve the quality of drug information leaflets that accompany prescription drugs, but often have incomplete information or are written in jargon the average consumer can’t understand.

— The government should establish national telephone hotlines to help patients unable to understand printed drug information because of illiteracy, language barriers or other problems.

The Institute of Medicine is a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, an independent organization chartered by Congress to advise the government on scientific matters.

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