An unfortunate fact of the American healthcare system is also a fact of human nature: People make mistakes. Unfortunately, when doctors or other healthcare professionals make the same kinds of mistakes that normal people make, the results can be far more catastrophic. One example is when doctors make prescription errors. Instead of getting the care that you need from the drugs you are counting on, you get a drug that actually makes things far worse, whether because it is ill-suited to your needs, has a dosage that is far too high or too low, or reacts poorly with other drugs you are taking.
When doctors make prescription errors, their mistakes can cause serious and irreparable damage to your health. They can even amount to medical malpractice. The Philadelphia attorneys at the law office of Gilman & Bedigian know how devastating prescription errors can be, and fight for the rights of victims to get the compensation they need and deserve.
What are Prescription Errors?
Generally speaking, a prescription error is a mistake by members of the healthcare system that happens in between a healthcare worker's diagnosis of a medical problem and the use of the drugs or medical care that gets prescribed. A more precise definition was settled on in a journal article in Quality in Health Care from 2000: “A prescribing error occurs when, as a result of a prescribing decision or prescription writing process, there is an unintentional significant (1) reduction in the probability of treatment being timely and effective or (2) increase in the risk of harm.” However, even this definition has not gained a general consensus.
While the precise definition of a prescription error might not be accepted, the general idea is that a prescription error is a mistake made by someone in the medical field, at some point in between the decision that a patient needs a specific kind of medical treatment, and when that patient receives treatment.
Examples of Prescription Errors
One example of a prescription error would be if you went to your doctor's office for medication for your allergy symptoms. The doctor – as many doctors do – writes a prescription quickly and only barely legibly and you take the prescription to the pharmacy. There, the pharmacist is unable to read the prescription and fills it incorrectly, with the dosage amount twice what it should be. When you follow the instructions on the medication, you suffer serious side effects that you would not have, had the prescription been filled out properly. In this case, a prescription error was likely made either by the doctor, for writing too poorly, or by the pharmacist, who either misread the writing or who should have confirmed the prescription if there was any doubt as to what it said.
Unfortunately, this example is not farfetched. Numerous drugs have similar sounding names, which are only distinguished by a couple of letters. For example, there are three drugs, Celexa, Celebrex, and Cerebyx, that can look identical to each other, if written quickly and poorly on a prescription label. However, they treat radically different maladies that can prevent you from getting the medical care that you need.
Another example has to do with the instructions on how to take a drug. Doctors often use shorthand or abbreviations to designate how often a pill is supposed to be taken. One of these is “q.d.”, which is an abbreviation for the Latin term quaque die, which doctors know means “once per day.” However, another common dosage abbreviation is “q.i.d.”, which comes from the Latin for quarter in die, which means “4 times per day.” Not knowing the abbreviations or not being able to read subtle differences when they are written can lead to a prescription error.
Statistics Show Prescription Errors are Common
Unfortunately, these examples of prescription errors are not outliers or exceptionally rare. Prescription errors happen often, and the results can be devastating. However, because of the lack of a precise definition and the fact that prescription errors typically go unreported, the exact number of errors that happen can only be estimated.
Even those estimates, however, are worrisome.
In one study by the World Health Organization (WHO), it was found that, in the United Kingdom, 12% of all primary care patients could be impacted by a prescription error in the course of a single year. This number increased dramatically when the patient was older or when they were receiving five or more drugs. 38% of patients over the age of 75 were impacted by prescription errors, while 30% of those who took five or more drugs over the course of one year had to deal with them. In less affluent countries that had less precise incident reporting systems, like Saudi Arabia or Mexico, though, the percentage of prescriptions that had errors in them approached or even exceeded 50%.
WHO's findings spell trouble for Americans, nearly one-third of whom take more than 5 medications.
Hospital Medication Errors
While many prescription errors happen in the context of a visit to a primary physician, general practitioners are not the only ones who can make a mistake on a prescription. These kinds of mistakes can also happen in the hospital to inpatients, as well.
In a hospital, there are fewer independent eyes looking over the medication administration process: Prescription decisions, dispensing, administration, and monitoring are all done under the same roof. This reduces the chances of detecting and rectifying an error on a prescription at any point in the process. Additionally, the huge number of patients in the hospital and in need of care significantly increases the chances that two different patients with different needs and risks, are confused for each other. Charts can get lost or misplaced, nurses can mistakenly give one patient twice the prescribed dose and another patient none, or the hospital pharmacy can dispense a prescription with expired drugs.
Errors in the Pharmacy
Medication errors can also happen in the pharmacy. Prescriptions that are properly and legibly written can reach the pharmacist, only to be dispensed incorrectly because the pharmacist was negligent, not paying attention, or was simply lazy.
Prescriptions that are even slightly ambiguous should prompt the pharmacist to contact the healthcare provider for clarification. However, many pharmacists are overworked and feel that they cannot take the time necessary to follow up. Some pharmacists even make the mistake of filling prescriptions with drugs that look like what was prescribed, but actually is not.
Errors Can Lead to Dangerous Drug Combinations
Regardless of where they happen, the harm of a prescription error goes above and beyond a patient not getting the benefit of the drug they should have received. The error frequently results in further dangerous complications as the patient takes a drug that was unintended by the doctors and reacts to other drugs that the patient was already taking in unexpected and dangerous ways.
When two drugs react to each other in harmful ways, it is called an adverse drug event, or an ADE. ADEs have been estimated to account for a huge portion of emergency room visits in the United States every year – over 700,000 – especially for the elderly, who are often taking numerous prescriptions every day. Those who are already in the hospital are also at risk of an ADE from a prescription error: One study found that 5% of hospital inpatients suffer an ADE during their stay.
Prescription errors are one of the main causes for an ADE. All of the research and care that are required for a doctor to make a proper diagnosis and prescription are thrown out if a mistake is made in filling or administering the prescription. Chances are that the different drug will have a far different effect on the patient. Worse, until the error has been detected, healthcare professionals will reasonably assume that the intended drug is the one that was administered. Subsequent prescriptions, even if properly made and filled, could very easily result in another ADE when they interact with the mistakenly prescribed drug.
Discovering Prescription Errors
Finding that an error was made in the prescription process is not an easy feat. There are thousands of drugs on the market, each with its own set of effects and side effects. Working backwards to determine what drug was mistakenly administered to a suffering patient – especially if numerous other drugs were also properly administered – can be a monumental task.
However, where the mistake was made and who was at fault can be done. Through extensive knowledge of drugs that are commonly used and mistakenly used, attentive readings of hospital and doctor's records, and careful interviews and testimony, it can be determined who was ultimately responsible for the serious oversight that caused so much pain and suffering.
Philadelphia Medical Malpractice Attorneys at Gilman & Bedigian
Many cases of prescription error effect the elderly and the very young – our parents and our children. These cases can be fatal or lead to permanent debilitations that prevent someone from living their life to the fullest.
In some cases, the oversight or negligence that was behind the prescription error can be so egregious that it amounts to an instance of medical malpractice. That is where the personal injury and medical malpractice attorneys at the Philadelphia law office of Gilman & Bedigian can help. If you or someone you love has been hurt while in the case of a medical professional and you suspect that a prescription error might have been the culprit, contact us online or call our law office at (800) 529-6162 for the legal representation you need to get the compensation you deserve.