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What is a medication error?

Medication errors are an all too common reality that many unsuspecting residents of Philadelphia face. Simply put, a medication error can be described as any event or series of cascading events that directly results in a patient inappropriately ingesting medication that results in harming rather than helping the patient.

According to statistics supplied by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the agency has documented at least 95,000 separate instances of medication errors that have occurred since record keeping started in 2000. The documented cases were all reported to MedWatch, an adverse event reporting program that the FDA uses to track medication error occurrences around the country.

It is important to keep in mind that all cases that are reported to MedWatch have been reported voluntarily. There is no legal requirement that compels any health care facility or physician to report instances of medication errors that arise.

It is precisely because the data is provided completely voluntarily that leads the director of the program to conclude that the actual instances of medication errors are likely occurring at a much higher frequency than the data would suggest. Analysis of the data suggests that medication errors arise due to many factors. For example, illegible handwriting by a health care professional can cause the pharmacist to supply incorrect intake instructions when they fill a prescription and explain to the patient how and when the drug is to be consumed.

Another reason that can contribute to medication error occurrences is confusion between drugs that have names that sound similar to each other. Medication errors can also occur if there is confusion over metric versus imperial units for dosage.

Since medication errors can occur due to failures in any step in the process, starting from when a diagnosis is made to when a prescription is filled and supplied to the patient, it will take a concerted effort to stamp out the problem. All parties involved, from the health care professional to the pharmacist as well as the patients themselves must do their part to ensure that medication errors can be made a thing of the past.

Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, "FDA 101: Medication Errors," Accessed Aug. 17, 2015

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