In the classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life, a young George Bailey saves two lives. He saves his brother from drowning. And he saves an innocent person from being poisoned.
Mr. Gower, the town’s druggist receives bad news, gets drunk, and nearly poisons a patient. George – who works as Gower’s delivery boy – sees the error and doesn’t make the delivery. Mr. Gower reacts violently at first. But then George reveals the truth, and his anger turns to regret and gratitude.
It’s a touching cinematic moment. Unfortunately, in real life, medication errors aren’t at all rare. And there may not be a George Bailey to step in if it happens to you or a loved one.
Medication errors happen at least 1.3 million times each year in the U.S. And retirees are hit especially hard. Almost half of all fatal medication errors in the U.S. involve people over 60.
“Life-Saving” Medicine Is the #3 Cause of Death in the U.S.
According to experts at Johns Hopkins, medical errors are now the 3rd leading cause of death in the U.S. Only heart disease and cancer lead to more deaths. A shocking 9.5% of deaths in the U.S. are linked to medical errors.
Mistakes involving drugs lead the pack.
More than 4 of 10 fatal medication errors involve wrong dosages. Giving someone the wrong drug entirely came in 2nd at 16%.
How can you give someone a completely wrong drug? Well, the Institute for Safe Medication Practices (ISMP) keeps a list of commonly confused drugs. The list currently runs to 9 pages – with 2 columns per page. The list totals over 800 entries!
And with more than 10,000 drugs to choose from, you can probably see why there might be some confusion.
The ISMP also keeps a shorter list of “high-alert” drugs. These are drugs that can cause serious harm with even small slip-ups. And the list isn’t laden with exotic drugs for rare diseases. They include some of the most common drugs you could imagine. Such as…
- Epinephrine – The drug used by millions to reverse allergic reactions.
- Oxytocin – A common opioid pain reliever.
- Insulin U-500 – A potent form of insulin used to control blood sugar.
The list also includes classes of drugs… such as oral hypoglycemic (to lower blood sugar)… all injected insulin… anticoagulants (so-called “blood thinners”)… and even some forms of sodium chloride (salt) and water!
Errors with these drugs may not be more common than with other drugs. But when they happen, the results can be especially serious.
And here’s one more disturbing fact…
Half of All IV Drug Use Involves an Error
In 2016, BMJ Quality & Safety – a publication of the British Medical Journal – published a multi-hospital study.
Researchers found errors occurred in 60% the uses of IV drugs. Even when so-called “smart pumps” were used.
Smart pumps were developed to prevent errors. But that didn’t prevent errors in almost two-thirds of these cases.
Most of the errors – 65% – involved violations of hospital policies. And – fortunately – most weren’t serious enough to lead to patient harm.
Still, the review showed that even the “smartest” technology can’t overcome all human error. And that human error is a very common problem.
So what can you do?
Protect Yourself From Drug-Related Mistakes
First and foremost, keep in mind nobody – even the highest paid doctor in the world – is mistake-proof. And realize many mistakes happen when a decision maker doesn’t have all the facts. So…
Be sure all your doctors know what drugs you’re taking – as well as any vitamins or other supplements. That should help you avoid any negative drug interactions.
Next, ask anyone who prescribes a drug to spell out the name for you, the dose, and when to take it. Write it down. Many drugs have similar names. And small differences in dose can take you from healthy to hurtful.
Don’t be afraid to ask why any drug is being prescribed, either.
If you land in the hospital, keep a list of your prescriptions – What you’re taking, how much you should take and when. Double-check anything you’re given with your list. If it doesn’t match, find out why before you take it.
Medical professionals take pride in their work. And most of them get it right most of the time. But they’re human. Mistakes happen. Someone takes a shortcut… or misreads instructions… or picks up the wrong drugs for the wrong hospital room because they’re in a hurry.
When it comes to drugs, small mistakes can have big consequences. If you stay alert and ask the right questions, you can cut your risk of suffering those consequences.
About the Author: Jason Kennedy is a celebrated investigative health writer and the author of The X-Factor Revolution and Beyond the Blue Zone. With over 10 years of experience working with today’s leading alternative and anti-aging doctors, Jason shares his insider status and access to the latest breakthroughs with thousands of readers from around world.
“Study Suggests Medical Errors Now Third Leading Cause of Death in the U.S.,” Johns Hopkins Medicine. May 3, 2016.
“Medication Errors,” AHRQ. Jun 2017.
Anderson, P. and Twonsend, T., “Preventing high-alert medication errors in hospital patients,” American Nurse Today. May 2015; 10(5): 18-23.
“ISMP List of High-Alert Medications in Acute Care Settings,” ISMP. 2014.
“ISMP’s List of Confused Drug Names,” ISMP. Feb 2015.
“Majority of IV Medication Errors Linked to Clinical Practice Not Technology,” AAMI. Mar 8, 2016.
Binder, L., “The Shocking Truth About Medication Errors,” Forbes. Sep 3, 2013.
Stoppler, M.C., “The Most Common Medication Errors,” MedicineNet.com. Dec 1, 2014.
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