WHO puts medication-related errors on global hit list

Medication errors cause at least one death every day and injure roughly 1.3 million people each year in the United States alone. But it’s not only a national problem, and the World Health Organization is taking action to reduce these preventable adverse events worldwide.

The WHO aims to reduce severe, avoidable medication-associated harm in all countries by 50% over the next five years.

"We all expect to be helped, not harmed, when we take medication," said WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan in an announcement about its new initiative. "Apart from the human cost, medication errors place an enormous and unnecessary strain on health budgets. Preventing errors saves money and saves lives."

Indeed, the costs related to medication errors are high. The WHO estimates the costs are $42 billion worldwide, almost 1% of total global health expenditure

To reduce these errors, the WHO intends to address weaknesses in health systems that lead to medication errors, offer ways to improve the way providers prescribe and distribute medicine, and increase patient awareness about the risks associated with the improper use of medication.  

Reasons for the errors are often associated with health worker fatigue, overcrowding, staff shortages, poor training and wrong information given to patients. In many cases any of these causes or a combination of them can affect the prescribing, dispensing, consumption and monitoring of medications, according to WHO.

But all of these medication errors are potentially avoidable, according to WHO, if organizations put systems and procedures in place to ensure the right patient receives the right medication at the right dose via the right route at the right time.

“Most harm arises from systems failures in the way care is organized and coordinated, especially when multiple health providers are involved in a patient’s care. An organizational culture that routinely implements best practices and that avoids blame when mistakes are made is the best environment for safe care,” the WHO said in the announcement.

Although many organizations rely on health IT systems that are designed to improve prescription ordering and medication administration, a recent study finds these systems can actually contribute to medical errors. Some experts warn that digital prescription systems miss potential drug errors, and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT has called on vendors and providers to reduce the number of “pick list” medication errors.

To achieve its goal of cutting the number of these mistakes by half, WHO is calling on countries to focus on medicines with a high risk of harm if used improperly, patients who take multiple medications for different diseases and conditions, and patients who are going through transitions of care.

The initiative aims to make improvements in each stage of the medication use process including prescribing, dispensing, administering, monitoring and use. WHO aims to provide guidance and develop strategies, plans and tools to ensure that the medication process has the safety of patients at its core, in all healthcare facilities.