For any given week, four out of five American adults use over-the-counter drugs, prescription medicines or other herbal and dietary supplements. Approximately one-third of adults take five or more types of medications. Given the volume of medications consumed, medication errors are inevitable. The number of Americans getting sick from making medication mistakes at home – taking either the wrong drug or the wrong dosage, has been rising at an alarming rate.
According to Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, “even more drugs for ever more diagnoses in more people invite ever more errors and adverse reactions.” Three Americans contact a poison control center, every minute of every day, after making a major mistake with their medication.
A study was conducted by the Poison Center Research to determine the causes of medical errors outside healthcare facilities. The study was recently published in the Journal of Clinical Toxicology. Researchers analyzed information from a database of calls made to poison control centers in the United States and reviewed cases in which medication errors resulted in “serious medical outcomes,” that required immediate medical care.
The study primarily focused on cases in which errors took place outside of health care facilities, usually at patients’ home. Poison control centers that were a part of the study received more than 67,000 calls associated with medication errors, from 2000 to 2012. During this period, the number of cases related to such errors increased from 3,065 in 2000 to 6,855 in 2012. More than 400 people died from such errors. Furthermore, the rate of medication errors doubled from 1 case per 100,000 Americans to 2 cases per 100,000 Americans. One-third of the people committing medication errors had to be admitted to the hospital. 17 percent people were admitted to a critical or intensive care unit (ICU), and 15 percent were admitted to a noncritical care unit.
Cardiovascular drugs such as beta-blockers and clonidine; pain medications including acetaminophen and opioids; pain medications including insulin, were the most common medications involved. During the study period, researchers noted that a general increase in prescription of cardiovascular drugs, opioids, and insulin could have resulted caused a rise in the medication errors involving these drugs. Taking (or giving someone else) the wrong medication or dosage and double-dosage were the most common types of medication errors.
Lethargy or drowsiness, an abnormally fast or slow heart rate, and low blood pressure were the most common symptoms in people who experienced medication errors. The study also found that medication errors at home increased across all age ranges over the period of study, except one: children under age 6. Reduced usage of a pediatric cough and cold medications after the Food and Drug Administration advised parents to avoid giving those drugs, resulted in lower medication errors for children under age 6.
Nicole Hodges, a research scientist with the Center for Injury and Research, believes that since the study reviews only medication errors reported to poison control centers, it is underestimating the actual number of medication errors across the United States. “Unfortunately, we cannot tell from data whether serious medication errors are occurring more frequently, or whether they are simply being reported more often,” she said.
Consumers can take several steps to avoid medication errors at home. They must ensure that their doctors are aware of every medicine they are taking, including over-the-counter medicines and dietary supplements, such as herbs and vitamins. When a doctor writes a prescription, consumers should make sure that they read the prescription. If they are unable to read the doctor’s handwriting, the pharmacist might not be able to read it either. Users must ask the pharmacist for the best device to measure liquid medicine and any questions they might have about the medicine labels. Using a chart or pillbox can help users keep track of their medications. Finally, it is important to have a partner, caregiver or family member with the patient when hospital discharge instructions are given. Drug makers could help by making improvements to drug labeling and packaging, thereby making dosing instructions easier to follow for people with limited math and reading skills.