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Hospital Drug-Error Trends Continue

New Report Finds Old Problems, but a Willingness to Change
By Daniel DeNoon

May 24, 2002 -- Hospitals are still making too many mistakes when giving medicine to patients, a new report shows. Relatively few of these blunders hurt anybody. But when they do, they can be deadly.

The findings come from the second annual medication-errors report from MedMARx, an anonymous program that keeps track of this kind of mistake.

The most common errors were not giving the right drug, giving the wrong dose of a drug, or giving an unauthorized drug. The drugs most often involved are insulin (a diabetes medicine), heparin (a blood thinner), and morphine (a potent painkiller).

"These recurring trends indicate that while progress in reporting errors is being made, the same types of errors are occurring again and again," Diane D. Cousins, RPh, says in a news release. "This tells us that there are deeper, more systemic causes for these errors. These systems need to change in order to reduce errors." Cousins is a MedMARx vice president.

The current report covers the year 2000. Among the 184 participating healthcare facilities, there were 37,999 definite errors and 3,297 possible errors.

Only 3% of the definite errors actually hurt patients -- but that figure represents 1,233 injured people. Three of them died.

Distractions, too much work, and inexperienced staff remain the most common reasons for medication error.

Fewer hospitals participated in the 1999 report, so the 2000 report isn't directly comparable. Still, there were about 111 error reports per hospital in 1999 and about 224 error reports per hospital this year. MedMARx suggests that much of the increase is due to better error reporting.

The scope of medical errors came to light in 1999 when the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences published a report titled To Err Is Human. The scientists estimated that as many as 98,000 hospital patients die every year as a result of preventable errors, including medication mistakes.

Since that time, everyone from the U.S. president to doctors to entrepreneurs have called for an array of systems and technologies designed to prevent errors or catch them before they can harm the patient.

Cousins thinks all the attention to medical errors has resulted in some noticeable changes: "This second MedMARx report provides a strong indication that health care professionals and institutions are more willing to report errors and to understand that they can learn from the mistakes of others," she says in a news release. "We hope that this trend continues and that these entities get support -- both legislatively and professionally -- for the important work they are doing in reporting medication errors."

2002 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

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