NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 21, 2006

More than 1.5 million Americans are injured every year by drug errors in hospitals, nursing homes and doctors' offices, a count that doesn't even estimate patients' own medication mix-ups, says a report that calls for major steps to increase patient safety.

Topping that list: All prescriptions should be written electronically by 2010, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) said.  At least a quarter of all medication-related injuries are preventable, the institute concluded in the report it released yesterday.

Perhaps the most stunning finding of the report was that, on average, a hospitalized patient is subject to at least one medication error per day, despite intense efforts to improve hospital care in the six years since IOM began focusing attention on medical mistakes of all kinds.

The new probe couldn't say how many victims of drug errors die:

  • A 1999 estimate put the number of deaths, conservatively, at 7,000 a year. Also unknown is how many of the injuries are serious.
  • But a preventable drug error can add more than $5,800 to the hospital bill of a single patient.
  • Assuming that hospitals commit 400,000 preventable drug errors each year, that's $3.5 billion -- not counting lost productivity and other costs -- from hospitals alone, the report concluded.

Among the report's recommendations:

  • The government should take action to speed electronic prescribing, including fostering technology improvements so that the myriad computer programs used by doctors, hospitals and drugstores 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 Food and Drug Administration should improve the quality of drug-information leaflets that accompany prescription drugs.
  • The government should establish national telephone hot lines to help patients unable to understand printed drug information.

Source: Lauran Neergaard, "Drug errors plague patients, cost billions," Associated Press, July 21, 2006; based upon: "Preventing Medication Errors," Institute of Medicine, July 2006.


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