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Misunderstood prescriptions can result in deadly mistakes

What is it about doctors that makes their handwriting so illegible? We've all heard jokes about how hard it can be to read the chicken scratch on prescription orders, but what isn't funny are the deadly mistakes that can happen when patients get the wrong pills because a written prescription was misunderstood.

Getting the wrong prescription can lead to a patient not improving at best, and worse results include allergic reactions, hospitalization and even death. Any of these could lead to a medical malpractice lawsuit if the damage is serious. A Canadian study found that drug-related errors account for one-fourth of incidents of patient injury. Only surgery causes more preventable harm, at least in hospitals. Outpatient errors are harder to measure, but pharmacists have reported that 10 to 15 percent of prescriptions contain some sort of error.

Illegible handwriting is just one reason for the errors. Misinterpreted abbreviations for timing and dosage and similar-sounding brand names of drugs are other culprits. Prescription software helps clear up some of the problems, because it generally doesn't allow abbreviations and ensures pharmacists won't have to guess at what the doctor was writing. The software also flags allergies and medical conditions for a specific patient, preventing unknown side effects.

Prescription errors appear to be more common among elderly patients, who tend to take more medications. The average senior patient fills almost 40 prescriptions a year. Without electronic records, doctors and pharmacists have to rely on the patient's memory to avoid prescribing drugs that could have a negative effect based on allergies or interactions with other medications.

Ultimately, the more electronic the prescription-filling process becomes, the less room for error there should be. And the fewer errors there are, the lower the costs will be for everyone, including the costs to patients' health and lives. Until that happens across the board, it's important to keep a close eye on your bottle labels and in close touch with your physician to make sure your prescription is just what the doctor ordered.

Source: Financial Post, "When pills kill," Rebecca Walberg, Feb. 28, 2012

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