Problematic prescriptions: mistakes too common, researchers say

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Nearly one in ten prescriptions written at hospitals may contain errors, according to research conducted by the U.K.’s General Medical Council (GMC). In a study of nearly 125,000 prescriptions written over seven days at 19 different hospitals throughout northwest England, researchers found that more than 11,000—or nearly 9%—contained errors, and that 1.7% of all errors made could have been potentially lethal for patients. What’s more, though the study was originally designed to assess whether foundation trainees—the U.K. equivalent of first- and second-year medical residents—were more likely to make errors than more senior physicians, researchers found that errors were commonplace even among specialists and consultants.

The research, released last week by the GMC, was followed up by an editorial in the most recent issue of the British medical journal The Lancet. The editorial expresses dismay and concern over the relatively high proportion of mistakes made in prescriptions. And, while, in the GMC study, most errors were caught and corrected by pharmacists, nurses or other doctors before they reached patients, the relatively high number of mistakes across all levels of medical training was cause for concern. The Lancet editors write:

“What is surprising, perhaps, is that the error rate for consultants was as high as one in 20, and that the most junior doctors were no worse than the average.”

The findings from the U.K. study echo those of a 2006 report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM), which found that each year nearly 1.5 million Americans are harmed or even killed by medication mistakes, and that errors made in hospitals alone cost some $3.5 billion annually.

The Lancet editorial concludes that improving pharmacological education at both the medical school and professional training levels is essential, and that education should continue throughout physicians’ careers. Previous recommendations from IOM committee members suggest that relying more on electronic systems and less on doctors’ handwritten prescriptions may help combat the problem, but that reducing medication errors is a complex, multi-layered problem that will not be solved with any short-term solution. In the meantime, medical experts encourage patients to be proactive and make sure that they understand what medications they are taking, what those drugs are for, and how they are supposed to be administered.