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Professional News
Multipart Strategy Urged To Reduce Medication Errors
Psychiatric News
Volume 41 Number 16 page 5-37

Medication errors are among the most common medical mistakes, impacting at least 1.5 million people every year, according to the Institute of Medicine (IOM).

The extra medical costs of treating drug-related injuries occurring in hospitals alone conservatively amount to $3.5 billion a year, and this estimate does not take into account lost wages and productivity or additional health care costs, the IOM states in a new report, "Preventing Medication Errors."

The report is the fourth IOM paper in its "Quality Chasm Series," begun in 1996. Previous reports include "To Err Is Human" (2000), "Crossing the Quality Chasm" (2001), and" Patient Safety" (2004).

The new report offers specific recommendations for physicians, health systems and hospitals, and patients in four broad categories: improving the patient-provider partnership; improving drug-information resources; electronic prescribing and other IT solutions; and drug naming, labeling, and packaging.

"The frequency of medication errors and preventable adverse drug events is cause for serious concern," said committee co-chair Linda Cronenwett, Ph.D., dean and professor at the University of North Carolina School of Nursing, in a statement released with the report. "We need a comprehensive approach to reducing these errors that involves not just health care organizations and federal agencies, but the industry and consumers as well."

Some of the important recommendations under each of the four broad categories are as follows:

The report provides consumers with a list of questions to ask health care providers, such as how to take their medications properly and what to do if side effects occur. Also included are actions consumers should take, such as requesting that their clinicians give them a printed record of the drugs they have been prescribed. Patients should maintain an up-to-date list of all medications they use—including over-the-counter products and dietary supplements—and share it with all their health care providers. This list should also note the reasons they are taking each product and include drug and food allergies.

The IOM called on the National Library of Medicine (NLM) to be the chief agency responsible for online health resources for consumers; it should create a Web site to serve as a centralized source of comprehensive, objective, and easy-to-understand information about drugs for consumers.

The report also recommended that NLM, FDA, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services evaluate ways to build and fund a national network of telephone helplines to assist people who may not be able to access or understand printed medication information because of illiteracy, language barriers, or other obstacles.

All health care provider groups should be actively monitoring their progress in improving medication safety, the committee recommended. Monitoring efforts might include computer systems that detect medication-related problems and periodic audits of prescriptions filled in community pharmacies.

The FDA, AHRQ, and the pharmaceutical industry should collaborate with United States Pharmacopeia, Institute for Safe Medication Practices, and other appropriate organizations to develop a plan to address the problems associated with drug naming, labeling, and packaging by the end of 2007.

The report also recommends studies to evaluate the impact of free drug samples on overall medication safety.

Responding to the report, APA immediate past President Steven Sharfstein, M.D., emphasized the importance of the physician's relationship with patients in the reduction of medication errors.

"I do believe that health care organizations, including hospitals, should inform patients of all errors, including medication errors, even if there is no harm," he said. "It is important that patients and families are part of a safety-first culture, and patient-family education is very high on the priority list these days. Including patients and families in the formation of a treatment plan is increasingly seen as critical to its success."

Al Herzog, M.D., chair of APA's Patient Safety Committee, told Psychiatric News that studies of errors across medical specialties suggest psychiatry is not different from other areas of medicine.

"Serious errors that cause true patient harm happen when treating patients with multiple diagnoses and involve matters such as wrong dose and wrong medicine with medications whose names look and sound alike," he said. "Insulin and coumadin orders on inpatient units present special challenges because of the close relationship between dose and effect. Arrhythmias with some of the antipsychotics and older antidepressants also need to be watched."

Herzog emphasized especially that a "systems analysis" perspective on errors—which regards medication and other medical errors as occurring in the context of a system of care—should replace the current adversarial approach to blaming individual physicians.

"I can't overestimate the importance of looking at this as a system issue rather than `you are a bad doctor/nurse' issue," he said." Hopefully, all of us are taking a time-out when a mistake is made to learn from our root-cause analyses. The IOM report makes that point over and over again."

The IOM study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Established in 1970 under the charter of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine provides independent, objective, evidence-based advice to policymakers, health professionals, the private sector, and the public.

A prepublication copy of "Preventing Medication Errors" is available from the National Academies Press by phone at (202) 334-3313 or (800) 624-6242 or online at<www.nap.edu>.

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