Drug Errors Harm 1.5 Million A Year

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More than 1.5 million Americans are injured every year by drug errors in hospitals, nursing homes and doctor's offices, a count that doesn't even estimate patients' own medication mix-ups, says a report that calls for major steps to increase patient safety.

Topping that list: All prescriptions should be written electronically by 2010, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences said. At least a quarter of all medication-related injuries are preventable, the institute concluded in the report it released Thursday.

Perhaps the most stunning finding of the report was that, on average, a hospitalized patient is subject to at least one medication error per day — despite intense efforts to improve hospital care in the six years since the institute began focusing attention on medical mistakes of all kinds.

The report was discussed on The Early Show Friday by Dr. Albert Wu, a professor of public health and medicine at Johns Hopkins University. To watch the interview, click here

The new probe couldn't say how many victims of drug errors die. A 1999 estimate put the number of deaths — conservatively — at 7,000 a year. Also unknown is how many of the injuries are serious.

Tips On How To Avoid Medication Errors
But a preventable drug error can add more than $5,800 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.

"The numbers are big. The injuries are big. This is a problem, it's serious and it continues," said report co-author Michael Cohen, president of the Institute for Safe Medication Practices.

Technology alone could prevent some errors today, but there's too little incentive for hospitals and other care providers to invest, added University of Arizona pharmacy dean J. Lyle Bootman, who chaired the IOM probe.

"We're paid whether these errors occur or not," lamented Bootman, who recently experienced the threat firsthand as his son-in-law dodged some drug near-misses while in intensive care in a reputable hospital.

For now, Bootman advises consumers to be aggressive in questioning doctors, nurses and pharmacists about their medications, whether they're watching over a hospitalized loved one or figuring out their own pills at home.

Take the example of Abe Ticknor, reports CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin. He was 87 going on 65, his daughter Diane likes to say — old but full of life. But then a doctor in his nursing home overdosed him on the blood-thinning drug Coumadin. He died six weeks later.

How to battle drug errors is a particularly vexing issue because of the sheer volume and complexity of today's medications. There are more than 10,000 prescription drugs on the market, and 300,000 over-the-counter products. Many come with vastly different usage and dosing instructions depending on the patient's age, weight and other risk factors, like bad kidneys.