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Report cites high cost of medication errors

WASHINGTON – Medication mistakes injure more than 1.5 million Americans every year, a toll too often unrecognized and unfought, says a call to action.

At least a quarter of the errors are preventable, the Institute of Medicine said Thursday. The report calls for major steps by the government, health providers and patients.

Topping the list: All prescriptions should be written electronically by 2010, a move one specialist called as crucial to safe care as X-ray machines.

Perhaps the report’s most stunning finding was that, on average, a hospitalized patient is subject to at least one medication error per day.

A serious drug error can add more than $8,750 to the hospital bill of a single patient. Assuming that hospitals commit 400,000 preventable drug errors each year, that’s $3.5 billion – not counting lost productivity and other costs – from hospitals alone, the report concluded.

“I’m a patient-safety researcher (yet) I was surprised and shocked at just how common and how serious a problem this is,” said Dr. Albert Wu of Johns Hopkins University, who co-authored Thursday’s report.

Worse, there’s too little incentive for health providers to invest in technology that could prevent some errors today, added Dr. J. Lyle Bootman, the University of Arizona’s pharmacy dean, who co-chaired the IOM probe.

The new probe couldn’t say how many of the injuries are serious or how many victims die. A 1999 estimate put deaths, conservatively, at 7,000 a year.

Even the total injury estimate is conservative, Bootman stressed. It includes drug errors in hospitals, nursing homes and among Medicare outpatients, but it doesn’t attempt to count mix-ups in most doctors’ offices or by patients themselves.

The new report highlights how the nation’s fragmented health care system is conducive to drug errors, said Dr. Donald Berwick, a Harvard professor who heads the nonprofit Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

Medications’ sheer volume and complexity illustrate the difficulty. There are more than 10,000 prescription drugs on the market, and 300,000 over-the-counter products. It’s impossible to memorize their different usage and dosage instructions.

Plus, four of every five U.S. adults take at least one medication or dietary supplement every day; almost a third take at least five. The more you use, the greater your risk of bad interactions.


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