Patients unaware of medication errors

When hospitals make medication errors, they rarely tell the patient. A paltry 2 percent of the time, patients and their families hear about an error immediately after it happens, according to a study in Critical Care Medicine.

Researchers looked at 537 hospitals that voluntarily reported medication errors between 1999 and 2005. While non-ICU departments had most of the errors at 93.4 percent, the 6.6.percent of errors in ICUs were more likely to be harmful events.

Errors most often happen at the administration phase, with the most common mistake being an error of omission (not giving a patient a medication). Researchers noted most (98 percent) of errors don't lead to harm, but when they do, it's usually related to a dosage miscalculation or medical devices such as intravenous lines.

Lead study author Asad Latif, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said the inaction (immediately after the event) was the most surprising part about the study. More than half of the time, no actions were taken after an error, Reuters reported. Only a third of the hospital staff who made the reported mistakes were immediately told about their errors.

The research may be disappointing news to transparency advocates. Hospitals, including University of Michigan Health System and Massachusetts General Hospital, are exploring disclosure policies, in which hospitals tell patients about mistakes and offer compensation, if necessary, to avoid malpractice suits and bring cases to a close more quickly.

Even if hospitals inform patients of medication errors while they're in the hospital, there's still the problem of medication errors at discharge. A Yale-New Haven Hospital study last month found that three out of four patients go home with the wrong prescriptions or don't understand their medications. Leora Horwitz, assistant professor medicine at the Yale School of Medicine, encouraged hospitals to better educate patients about their medications.

For more information:
- see the Reuters article
- check out the Critical Care Medicine study abstract

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