Medications are an integral part of healthcare in America, and the global pharmaceutical industry is booming. That’s why they’re known as Big Pharma.
Worldwide, the market is worth $300 billion a year, according to the World Health Organization. In 2013, Americans ordered over 3.9 billion prescriptions from retail pharmacies; Indiana pharmacists handled more than 86 million prescriptions. These numbers don’t reflect drugs prescribed during a hospital stay or in nursing homes, from compounding pharmacies and mail order companies.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 48.5% of the U.S. population have used at least one prescription drug in the past 30 days, and 21.7% have used three or more.
Most of the time, we pick up the prescription, take it home and ingest it as instructed — no problem. But the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies estimates more than 4,000 people are injured every day in the U.S. because of a medication mistake made by a medical professional or pharmacist.
Typical Rx Mistakes
There are several mistakes by pharmacists working behind the counter that can have disastrous consequences for unsuspecting customers:
- Giving the patient the wrong drug
- Filling the Rx with the right drug but in the wrong dosage
- Failing to ask the prescribing doctor for clarification
- Misreading the order
- Failing to provide instruction or counseling to the user
- Confusing drugs with similar names
- Failing to identify potential drug interactions.
Common Reasons for Rx Errors
With all the orders they have to fill and the restrictions placed on them by their employers, some pharmacists say they constantly worry about their patients’ safety. A whistleblower lawsuit filed in a Pennsylvania federal court (Joseph Zorek v. CVS Caremark) gives some insight into why. In this plaintiff’s experience, his pharmacy sought to maximize profits by cutting staff, increasing the workload of remaining employees. At the same time, management used “metrics” to speed along the process, often at the expense of accuracy. This included timing and grading pharmacists on how fast they filled orders. Zorek called it “McPharmacy.”
Most drug store pharmacy departments are bustling places. Customers are phoning in refill requests or asking for information; fax machines are ringing; cars are lining up in the drive-through. In many stores, pharmacists are also expected to administer vaccine injections on demand. All of these interruptions contribute to the risk that the pharmacist will lose focus and make a dispensing error.
A common mistake is the substitution of one drug for another drug with a similar sounding name. More than 1,400 commonly used drugs are involved in errors linked to drug names that look alike or sound alike, according to U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) data. The difference in just a letter or two can spell the difference between life and death for a patient given the wrong drug.