We Can Do More to Avoid Medication Errors

Harvey V. Fineberg, MD, PhD


November 10, 2006


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At least one and a half million serious, preventable medication errors occur every year in the United States. These medication errors occur at home, in nursing homes, and in hospitals. They can be life-threatening, and they are costly. In hospitals alone, medication errors lead to at least $3.5 billion of needless medical costs, and this does not include lost wages and productivity from illness caused by medication errors.

One reason there are so many errors is that we take a huge number of medications. During the next week, 4 out of 5 US adults will use prescription medicines, over-the-counter drugs, or dietary supplements, and nearly one third of adults take 5 or more different medications.

Getting the right drug, in the right dose, delivered by the right route, to the right patient, at the right time -- every time -- seems like a tall order. But we should expect no less from our health system.

In its recent report on Preventing Medication Errors, the Institute of Medicine laid out a comprehensive approach to reduce these errors.

First, the Food and Drug Administration should work with manufacturers and consumer groups to redesign medication package inserts to ensure that they are simple to read, understandable, and useful to consumers. Drug names should be standardized and pills shaped, so that 2 medicines with very different purposes neither sound alike nor look alike.

Second, by 2010, all doctors and pharmacies should rely on electronic prescribing systems that reduce transcription errors and can automatically detect potential cross-reactions from different medicines in the same patient.

Finally, consumers should be active partners in their medication care. You and your family have a right to know the medicine and dosage you are taking and why you are taking it. Your life may depend on getting your medicine right.

That's my opinion. I'm Dr. Harvey Fineberg, President of the Institute of Medicine.


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