Doctors’ sloppy handwriting kills more than 7,000 people annually. It’s a shocking statistic, and, according to a July 2006 report from the National Academies of Science’s Institute of Medicine (IOM), preventable medication mistakes also injure more than 1.5 million Americans annually. Many such errors result from unclear abbreviations and dosage indications and illegible writing on some of the 3.2 billion prescriptions written in the U.S. every year.
The cure, according to the sources cited in the article, is automated prescribing. Physicians would use a web-enabled phone to select medications and dosages from menus, so names and numbers wouldn’t be miswritten or misheard (mis-selected is always possible, but you can’t remove all possibility of error). Most of the money for the systems will come from health insurers, so I don’t know how all this will work for people who pay for their own prescriptions.
The whole article left me with many questions, in fact, about choice, and product positioning—will doctors even be able to prescribe medications that aren’t in the “formulary” when they know that something else will work better? Will they be able to select something outside the standard range of doses? What about compounded prescriptions?
This little statistic surprised me, but there’s no source cited, so I’m not sure I trust it.
SureScripts CEO Kevin Hutchinson says one key to reducing medication errors is to get the most prolific prescribers to transition to electronic processing. “Not a lot of people understand that 15% of physicians in the U.S. write 50% of the prescription volume,” Hutchinson says. “And 30% of them write 80%. So it’s not about getting 100% of physicians to e‑prescribe. It’s about getting those key 30% who prescribe the most. Then you’ve automated the process.”
Unfortunately, Time doesn’t bother to give any suggestions as to how to save lives until this utopian system to control those wild and wooly scribblers is in place. I guess I’ll have to give it a go.
Please remember that when I say “you,” I mean you or your advocate.
First, be sure that you always know what your doctor is prescribing for you, and why. Take notes. Write down both the name and the dosage of every medication, and what it’s for. If you’re unclear on the spelling, as the doctor or his staff to spell it out or write it down for you.
If your doctor is giving you refills on your normal medications, look at the refill prescriptions. Do they seem to say what you expect them to say? If not, ask about them. Be sure. He might have misremembered or written down the wrong thing. Doctors are not infallible. It has happened to me! If you’ve already left the office, contact his staff. It’s better to be safe than sorry!
Compare your notes to the prescription bottle before you leave the pharmacy. If the prescription has been filled with a generic and your doctor gave you a brand name, double-check with the pharmacist (not just a clerk) to be sure that they really are the same medication. If your doctor said you were to take the medication twice a day and you’ve only got 30 pills to last 60 days, don’t leave the pharmacy.
Read the information included with your prescription. Make sure that it agrees with whatever the doctor told you, or makes sense considering why the doctor prescribed this medication for you. If you don’t understand, again, call the doctor’s office, or at least the pharmacy. “I have fibromyalgia, and my doctor prescribed this medication, but the insert just talks about depression. Why?” It’s a perfectly valid question. If the doctor already explained that to your satisfaction, of course, you needn’t call—but do call if anything doesn’t make sense.
Taking these precautions should protect you, whether your doctor scribbles, has beautiful penmanship, or uses an automated system.