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Medication Errors Remain Far Too Common

How frequent are medication errors in New York caused by illegible handwriting?

A recent Canadian study sheds light on how common medication errors still are in North America - even after years of New Yorker cartoons and other dark-comedy riffs satirizing doctors' bad handwriting.

Ultimately, this isn't a laughing matter. That is especially so when the bad handwriting results in prescription errors that injure or even kill patients.

To be sure, many hospitals and pharmacies are putting electronic prescription programs in place. But these are still the exception, not the rule.

The number of drug errors that result from poor writing is truly daunting. A national study of Canadian hospitals found that 1 of every 13 patients is harmed by a medical error, and drug-related mistakes make up a quarter of those incidents.

The Canadian study found that surgical errors are the only greater source of preventable harm in hospitals than drug errors.

It isn't only bad handwriting that is to blame. Many doctors also have numerous bad habits regarding the use of abbreviations. When a patient takes a drug, timing and dosage need to be clear. Unclear abbreviations can turn a drug that is supposed to help into an agent of harm.

The same is true of drugs with similar-sounding names.

Prescription-filling software can help correct potential mistakes by preventing doctors from using abbreviations and prompting them to verify that they have selected the right drug for the intended use.

Computer databases can also play a role in identifying potentially harmful drug interactions.

Use of these online tools needs to increase - quickly.

Source: "When pills kill," Rebecca Walberg, Financial Post, 2-28-12

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