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Drug Shortages Leading to Troubling Medication Errors

Medication errors have long been a major problem in New York and across the country. Now things are getting even worse, as chronic shortages of key medicines increase the risk of drug errors.

The number of medically necessary drugs in short supply is at crisis levels. The American Society of Health System Pharmacists puts the number at 150 - double the figure from five years ago.

The scope of the problem was also suggested by a survey over 1,800 healthcare providers conducted last fall by the Institute for Safe Medication Practices. The survey found at least 1,000 medication errors affecting patient safety that were related to drug shortages.

The shortages are the result of several factors, including the increased use of generic drugs and a decrease in the number of drug manufacturers.

Without the time or capacity to prepare replacement drugs themselves, hospital pharmacies often turn to outside pharmacies or drug distributors, with dubious results. These outside distributors often buy up limited supplies, leaving patients at risk if the drug isn't available.

The result is all-too-many adverse patient outcomes linked to medication errors. For example, in one fatal incident, two patients were killed when they were given the wrong dose of a pain relief drug. The IV drug administered to them was at a dose level for morphine, even though the actual drug they got was six times more powerful than morphine.

An under-dose can also lead to problems. There have been instances reported of patients not receiving enough anesthesia and waking up during surgery.

Source: "Drug shortages hit hospitals hard," The Commercial Appeal, 4-20-11

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