Healthcare News & Insights

Medication errors often kept under wraps in hospitals

New research suggests that medication errors happen fairly often in hospitals, particularly in the intensive care unit (ICU) – and most hospitals aren’t completely transparent about them with patients or staff members.

According to a study published in Critical Care Medicine, out of all the medication errors that occur in hospitals, nearly 7% happen in ICUs.  Close to 4% of these errors lead to adverse effects in patients.

Medication errors in the ICU were more likely to cause permanent and life-threatening harm to patients than errors originating in other hospital departments. In non-ICUs, only 2% of medication errors caused harm to patients.

The study found that medication errors are most likely to occur right when the medicine is due to be administered. The most common mistake is an error of omission – leaving out info necessary to give a patient the proper dose, or failing to give the patient the medication at all.

Errors that had the potential to cause the most harm to patients included problems with medical devices, including IVs, and miscalculations that caused patients to receive the wrong dosage.

Medication errors may be difficult to correct, particularly because staff aren’t often notified of their mistakes. Researchers found that only a third of the staff who made the mistakes were informed about what happened, according to an article in Reuters.

Notifying patients and their families about these errors is even less a priority. In fact, ICU patients are only told about medication mistakes a mere 1.5% of the time, and patients in other units find out about these errors 2% of the time.

This lack of communication may explain another finding of the study: For more than half of these medication errors, the hospital took no steps to change things after they occurred.

Inaction of this nature is unacceptable.

A better approach to medication errors

Although hospitals must work to prevent medicine errors from affecting all patients, it’s especially important for those in the ICU.

Because ICU patients often battle more serious health conditions than other patients, staff must take great care when dispensing their medicines. Otherwise, these patients could experience severe complications.

Hospitals should have several preventive measures in place to reduce the likelihood of a medication error, including:

  • Using only approved medical abbreviations when ordering prescriptions
  • Double checking patient charts before ordering and dispensing medication to look for key info like allergies or dosing changes, and
  • Asking questions if something doesn’t match up (i.e., if the prescribed medication isn’t appropriate for the patient’s condition).

The American Society of Hospital Pharmacists has more detailed guidelines for various staff members of hospitals to follow available here.

Along with these safeguards, it’s also important to foster a hospital culture that promotes full disclosure of errors for the sake of delivering quality patient care.

Encouraging hospital staff to be up front about mistakes is the first step toward correcting them.  Instead of blaming staff for mistakes, focus on what can be done to keep them from happening again.

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