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Medication errors are far more common than you may realize

On Behalf of | Apr 15, 2023 | Medical Malpractice |

In 2016, Johns Hopkins Medicine released a study that claimed medical errors were the third leading cause of death in the United States. While medication errors represent only a fraction of all fatal medical errors, there are plenty of ways medication errors can also lead to serious, non-fatal results.

In fact, the numbers suggest that medication errors are far more common than you might suspect. Despite the measures providers take to avoid errors, the FDA receives roughly 100,000 reports related to medication errors each year. And these reports likely reveal only the tip of the iceberg.

A look at the numbers

SingleCare, a consumer-focused pharmaceutical resource, recently compiled an extensive list of statistics on medication errors. These figures draw upon sources ranging from the CDC and Journal of the American Medical Association to the FDA and NORC at the University of Chicago.

  • By 2017, 41% of Americans had encountered a medication error either first- or second-hand
  • One in ten hospital patients will experience a medication error
  • Every year, Americans suffer roughly 530,000 injuries due to medication errors in outpatient clinics
  • 400,000 people suffer injuries due to medication errors in hospitals
  • Approximately 20% of medication errors are due to patient use at home, meaning the other 80% are due to other factors
  • The median medication error rate for intravenous medications is close to 50%, meaning half of all providers make errors at a higher rate
  • Community pharmacies incorrectly dispense 1.5% of all prescriptions

Note that that last number adds up when you consider the sheer volume of prescriptions pharmacies must fill. And the result of all these errors is that medication errors, independent of other medical problems, are the nation’s eighth leading cause of death.

Every year, somewhere between 7,000 and 9,000 Americans die as the result of medication errors. Every year, thousands of families mourn their loved ones.

Not all errors are malpractice, but many are

The good news is that most medication errors are not harmful, much less fatal. Still, it’s astonishing to see that medication errors are so common. Especially when we think of how long doctors, nurses and pharmacists must learn and train before they are free to work with medications.

This raises the question of how these medication errors can slip through the cracks. The truth is that there are always multiple safety measures in place. And there are often chances for providers to catch the errors before they lead to harm. But the Journal of Community Hospital Internal Medicine Perspectives explains how these accidents slip through multiple levels of safeguards according to the “Swiss Cheese Model” of system accidents.

This model says the safeguards are supposed to stop mistakes from passing through multiple stages. However, sometimes, the holes all line up, and the mistakes go through all the layers, just like the holes in Swiss cheese sometimes pass through all the remaining slices.

As an example:

  • Someone may create an error by dispensing a medication incorrectly
  • Providers fail to catch the error when they check a patient’s medications against the prescriptions
  • Providers fail to catch the error when the patient starts describing new medical problems
  • Providers fail to monitor a patient’s prescriptions to catch harmful doses or interactions, allowing the problems to get worse

As this example shows, serious errors can involve multiple failures. One mistake may be understandable and may not amount to malpractice. However, negligent providers can allow mistakes to compound earlier mistakes. When these acts of negligence cause patients real harm, they cross the line into medical malpractice.

What can people do?

As a consumer, you can limit your exposure to medication errors by taking several precautions. The FDA recommends:

  • Learning about your medications, including their intended purposes and harmful interactions
  • Storing your medications in their original containers
  • Checking the labels every time you take your medication
  • Maintaining an updated list of all your medications and sharing it with your doctor
  • Asking your doctor or pharmacist any questions you may have

If you or someone you love suffers a medication error that results from a provider’s negligence, you can file a medical malpractice suit to recover your damages.