Preventing Medical Mistakes

The Early Show, medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay says seniors mistakenly taking prescription drugs is a very common problem
CBS/The Early Show
A new study finds that for the elderly, many adverse reactions occurring as a result of errors in taking prescription drugs are preventable.

Early Show medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay says seniors mistakenly taking prescription drugs is a very common problem.

It's estimated that more than 90 percent of people aged 65 years or older use at least one medication per week. More than 40 percent use five or more different medications each week; 12 percent use 10 or more different medications per week.

The American Medical Association researchers wanted to find the number of mistakes that were made by doctors and patients when prescribing and following instructions for medications.

Dr. Senay says the research found more than 1,500 adverse drug events among 28,000 Medicare-enrolled HMO members. The researches also discovered 190,000 errors were committed annually among the 38 million people on Medicare.

Some of the errors were mistakes made by doctors in prescribing, such as failure to note allergic reactions or harmful drug interactions. Other errors were patient errors, such as not following instruction or noting the warnings.

Researchers say that more than a quarter of the errors were preventable and higher proportion of the most serious mistakes could have been prevented (Two out of five errors were rated serious, life-threatening, or fatal; 42 percent of those were judged preventable).

Most common medications linked to preventable drug errors were cardiovascular drugs, diuretics, antibiotics, non-narcotic painkillers and anti-clotting drugs, Dr. Senay says.

To prevent the mistakes from occurring, Dr. Senay recommends medical facilities use computerized prescription systems. She says if there's a system that contains patient records, then pharmacists and doctors can use it to avoid mistakes that result from known drug allergies or dangerous drug interactions. Computerized systems can also help doctors identify patents that may need closer monitoring and can avoid mistakes in deciphering handwritten prescriptions.

Tests to check how well a drug is working could also help avoid problems, said Dr. Senay. And better follow-up after a prescription is made can also help.

Patients need to educate themselves on the medications they are taking. They should know why they are taking it and when they should take it. She says while a doctor has a responsibility for communication medication information, the patient can also make an effort to read instructions and ask questions of their doctor or pharmacist if they're unsure of the medicine prescribed to them.

If a senior has trouble reading or understanding the issues, family members can get involved to make sure that mistakes aren't made.