Who's To Blame For Rx Errors?

Paul and Vicki Hartmann's one-month old daughter Meagan underwent a heart operation a few days after she was born. Doctors told them Meagan would live a happy, normal life.

"We were home for about a week and she ended up dying," says Vicki.

The Hartmanns say her death wasn't due to heart complications, but a fatal error. A pharmacist allegedly instructed them to give their daughter ten times the doctor's prescribed dosage. The family filed a lawsuit claiming they were misguided.

"The medication slowed down her heart. It was supposed to make each beat stronger and more forceful to make her heart work more efficiently. Basically, it slowed it to a stop," says Vicki.

Nationwide, nearly three billion prescriptions will be filled this year. No one knows exactly how many times a patient gets the wrong medication, incorrect instructions, or a lethal dose because no government agency is keeping records. There are no state laws requiring pharmacists and doctors to report prescription errors.

The Hartmanns insist that pharmacists bear primary responsibility for prescription errors and consumers should be cautious.

"If they have any doubts -- even if they don't have any doubts -- check and make sure that their prescriptions are right, because a mistake can happen to anybody," says Paul.

Michael Cohen, president of the Institute for Safe Medication Practices and a former pharmacist, now investigates prescription drug errors. He says the healthcare industry is not moving fast enough to prevent mix-ups.

"The healthcare industry doesn't seem to face these problems upfront. They seem to wait until something happens until some patient is injured and it shouldn't happen that way," says Cohen.

But an industry spokesman, Susan Winckler of the American Pharmaceutical Association, says anything from a physician's poor handwriting to drugs with similar names, or how a patient uses a prescription, can lead to prescription errors.

"It is the responsibility of both the pharmacist and the patient," says Winckler. "We all have to work together to make sure that we get the right medication and that it is used correctly. One member of that team can't do it alone."