Study examines causes of medication errors

When patients require hospitalization or need long-term care at a facility, it is expected that the staff will dispense the correct medication to the patient. Sadly, this does not always happen and can lead to serious consequences. If the patient is given the incorrect medication for his or her condition, besides possibly constituting medical malpractice, it can cause the patient to needlessly suffer an entire range of unintended side effects, some fatal.

Why do medication errors exist? A new study from the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority recently shed some light on the issue. The study found the primary reasons why medication orders get switched around and also recommended remedial steps that facilities could take to ensure that this does not happen.

For the study, researchers reviewed over 800 instances where a patient was given the incorrect medication for his or her medical condition. Although the study found that medication errors can happen anytime, it found that the primary reason why they occur is due to administrative errors.

Such errors were responsible for 43 percent of medication errors. Although administrative errors can happen in many ways, one of the most common examples is when nurses (or other staff) choose the wrong patient when retrieving medication from an automated dispensing cabinet. Ignoring proper procedure when identifying a patient-such as relying on the patient or family members to confirm the identity of the patient-also was a common example of administrative error. Finally, in many case of administrative error, staff would simply get confused about which patient was which while working with multiple patients sharing a room.

Besides administrative error, the study found that transcription errors were also a leading cause of medication errors. During the transcription process, once a physician has prescribed a medication, a nurse or pharmacist transfers the medication order to an electronic medical record. In many cases the study found that the nurse or pharmacist would simply transfer the order from the wrong patient's chart, resulting in the wrong medication being received by the unfortunate patient. This type of error was responsible for 38 percent of medication errors.

Prescribing errors, or cases where the physician simply prescribed medicine for the wrong patient, only occurred in 12 percent of cases. In addition, errors in the dispensing of the medicine-such as when the medicine is mislabeled or delivered to the wrong patient-happened only five percent of the time.

According to the study's authors, simply confirming the patient's identity more than once can reduce medication errors. For example, a staff member could first confirm the identity of the patient with a family member (or the patient) and then use an independent means (e.g. identification bracelet or chart) to ensure that the identification is correct.

Consult an attorney

If you or a loved one has been injured after receiving the wrong medication, you may be entitled to compensation under New Jersey law. An experienced medical malpractice attorney can ensure that the responsible parties are held accountable for their actions.