NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

High-Tech Help To Prevent Medical Mistakes

October 11, 2000

Helping doctors and other health-care providers avoid potentially lethal mistakes is fast emerging as a major national issue. It has been estimated that as many as 98,000 patients die each year as a result of medical errors.

Experts warn that the health-care industry has been slow to employ high-tech assistance to warn of potential errors. Problems range from doctors' illegible handwriting on prescriptions to insufficient understanding of the characteristics of thousands of new drugs pouring into medical markets.

  • An Institute of Medicine report last November cited mistakes made by doctors, nurses and hospital workers as the nation's eighth leading killer.
  • Experts report that the federal government has declined to approve some drugs because doctors are finding it difficult to remember their complexities.
  • Indeed, the Physicians' Desk Reference -- which contains the information today's doctors need -- is comprised of about 3,000 pages of fine print.
  • Doctors must also track dietary supplements, new high-tech devices and expanding treatment options.

But help may be on the way from an unexpected source: the Veterans Affairs hospital in Washington, D.C.

Physicians there use a $365,000 computer system that scans bar codes on patient bracelets and medicines. If a doctor is about to make a mistake, the system recognizes the conflict and displays a warning.

Those familiar with the system report that medical errors due to bad handwriting, rare drug interactions and human errors have largely been eliminated -- although hospital officials decline to give numbers.

Source: Robert Davis and Julie Appleby, "Lethal Medical Errors Often Could Be Cured," USA Today, October 11, 2000.


Browse more articles on Health Issues