New Processes Can Help Hospitals Spot - and Stop - Medication Errors

You might think that your doctor would know if a new drug would cause bad side effects in combination with one you already take. Or that your pharmacist could tell if a prescription you thought was for Darvon, (a painkiller), really should be for Diovan (a blood pressure drug). But with thousands of drugs (prescription and over-the-counter) of different strengths on the market, you could be wrong. When important information about medicines isn't communicated correctly at the right time, errors can happen. Some of them can be very serious, even deadly. Errors involving drugs are the most common type of medical errors, harming about 1.5 million people each year, according to the Institute of Medicine. Treating drug-related injuries that occur in hospitals costs $3.5 billion per year, according to its 2007 report. A recent example shows how easily these errors can happen. More hospitals are working to reduce the chance of drug-related injuries with processes that involve pharmacists, doctors, and nurses. One process is known as "medication reconciliation." This involves comparing a patient’s current drug routine to any changes a physician makes when a patient is admitted, transferred, or released from the hospital. (Maintaining and communicating this information correctly is a national patient safety goal for 2012 of the Joint Commission, which accredits hospitals and health care organizations.) To help hospitals with this process, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) has funded research for a new toolkit based on a successful program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Known as MATCH, the toolkit provides a step-by-step method so hospitals can review and improve current processes or create new ones. It can be used in both hospital and outpatient settings. Even though more hospitals are working to prevent medication errors, patients have a role, too. Here’s a checklist of tips that can help: •Bring a list or a bag with all your medicines when you go to your doctor’s office, the pharmacy, or the hospital.Ask questions. Ask your doctor or pharmacist to use plain language so that you understand the answers. •Make sure your medicine is what the doctor ordered. Many drugs look alike and have names that sound alike. Check with your doctor or pharmacist to be sure you have the right medicine. •Learn how to take medicine correctly. Read the directions on the label and other paperwork you get with your medicine. Ask your pharmacist or doctor to explain anything you do not understand. •Find out about possible side effects. Many drugs have side effects. Some side effects may bother you at first but will improve with time. If a side effect does not get better or you get a different one from what you've read about, talk to your doctor to see if you need a different medicine or dose. Medicines can help you, but they can also harm you. Better medication reconciliation processes and smart questions from patients will reduce the chance of harm.