Thursday, July 20, 2006 (Reuters Health)—Medication errors hurt 1.5 million people every year in the United States and cost at least $3.5 billion, according to a report issued on Thursday.

If hospitals, clinics and other providers owned up to each and every mistake, it would help to keep track of and eventually reduce them, and systems such as electronic prescribing would also help, the Institute of Medicine report said.

“Medication errors are among the most common medical errors, harming at least 1.5 million people every year,” the Institute said in a statement.

Such mistakes kill at least 7,000 people a year, according to the Institute, an independent, non-profit organization that advises the federal government on health issues.

“The extra medical costs of treating drug-related injuries occurring in hospitals alone conservatively amount to $3.5 billion a year, and this estimate does not take into account lost wages and productivity or additional health care costs,” the institute added.

One example -- a Denver hospital gave a newborn infant a tenfold overdose of penicillin in case it had been infected with syphilis from its mother in 1996. Nurses balked at giving the baby five injections so administered the medicine in what turned out to be an unusual and improper way -- intravenously. The baby died, and the autopsy showed it did not have syphilis and never needed the treatment in the first place.

“This case illustrates that medication errors are almost never the fault of a single practitioner or caused by the failure of a single element,” the report states.

“According to one estimate, in any given week, four out of every five U.S. adults will use prescription medicines, over-the-counter drugs, or dietary supplements of some sort, and nearly one-third of adults will take five or more different medications,” the report said.


“The committee estimates that on average a hospital patient is subject to at least one medication error per day.”

Errors occur when prescriptions are written, filled, administered, when patients are monitored and when drugs interact with one another, according to the committee of experts who wrote the report.

“Our recommendations boil down to ensuring that consumers are fully informed about how to take medications safely and achieve the desired results, and that health care providers have the tools and data necessary to prescribe, dispense, and administer drugs as safely as possible and to monitor for problems,” said J. Lyle Bootman, dean of the University of Arizona’s College of Pharmacy and a committee chairman.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it was already working on some of the recommendations, including better patient education and labeling.

Health care providers typically do not inform the patient or the patient’s guardians about errors unless injury or death results, the report said. But if they did, it would help make everyone involved more aware of the errors and would encourage them to take more care, the report said.

“Electronic prescribing is safer because it eliminates problems with handwriting legibility and, when combined with decision-support tools, automatically alerts prescribers to possible interactions, allergies, and other potential problems,” the Institute added.

It said that by 2010 all providers should be using e-prescribing systems and all pharmacies should be able to receive prescriptions electronically.