Preventing medication errors in Alaska

Medication mistakes in Alaska and across the country are a prevalent but preventable problem.

It is no secret that daylight over the fall and winter months in Anchorage is limited. According to an interesting study published by the National Institutes of Health in 1995, there was actually an increase in the number of medication errors in the first quarter of the year, suggesting that these mistakes are tied to the cycle of darkness that takes place. Researchers evaluated five years of data to determine that such an error was 1.95 times more likely to take place in December than in September.

While the daylight factor may be unique to Alaska, many other items that lead to drug errors are not. Patients should be aware of the situations most likely to result in a medication mistake and know how they and medical professionals can avoid the issue.

A pervasive problem

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adverse drug events result in 120,000 hospitalizations and approximately 700,000 trips to the emergency room every year. The Institute of Medicine has found that 7,000 people die every year due to a medication mistake. In addition to the physical problems patients may experience, the CDC reports that these events are also financially significant; each year, $3.5 billion is spent on adverse drug incidents.

How it happens

One of the most prominent factors behind drug mistakes is that there is a breakdown somewhere in the system that diagnoses, prescribes and delivers medication to a patient. An error could occur in one of the following ways:

  • Drugs that have similar names but different properties are confused.
  • A patient is given too much of a drug.
  • The tools used to deliver a drug to a patient in a hospital setting malfunction.
  • A young patient is given the incorrect dosage of a drug when his or her weight is not taken appropriately.
  • A provider is unaware of other medications a patient is taking, resulting in an adverse interaction between the prescriptions.
  • A patient's medical record is misread or incomplete, leading to a prescription for or the administration of a drug to which the patient is allergic.

The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons states that only through taking a multi-disciplinary approach to these errors can the industry start to reduce the incidence of adverse drug events.

Finding a solution

The American Academy of Family Physicians published a report that outlines ways that doctors can ensure patients are not exposed to a drug error. For example, a physician should always consult with the patient about any drug allergies and have a process in place to correctly identify a patient before administering a drug. Further, height and weight measurements should be converted to the metric system, which many medications use in their labeling.

Practitioners should also be keenly aware of any medications that have been labeled as "high alert," which means they are easily confused or have dangerous side effects when mishandled. Clear communication is also key, and the AAFP notes that doctors should ensure their writing is legible and avoid the use of abbreviations when transmitting notes to other professionals.

What Alaskans can do

From the patient perspective, Alaskans can avoid suffering a medication mistake by making sure their physicians are aware of any drug allergies they might have. Experts recommend asking a doctor why he or she prescribed a certain medication and what the possible side effects might be.

Anyone who has experienced an adverse drug event due to a medical professional's mistake should consult with an attorney.