Accountability has proven to be a central theme in the failings of our healthcare system. While there was a time in our history that patients saw one physician for their medical needs, today’s patient will likely go to several doctors to get the care they need. To receive treatment for a medical condition, a patient might see many doctors and nurses and be given many different types of medications.
A major study in 2016 found that as many as 250,000 people die every year from medical error. The number of interactions a person has with providers, the more potential there is for a mistake to be made. Unfortunately for the victims of medical error, accountability becomes diluted among these different providers.
There is one area of modern medicine in which accountability is easier to determine. When it comes to the distribution of prescription drugs, pharmacists serve as the last line of defense between error and the patient. They are the safeguard against mistakes, and it is their job to catch those mistakes before they cause harm to a sick patient.
Of course, mistakes still happen, even in the process of medication distribution. Though the standards pharmacists must adhere to are relatively strict, it is not uncommon for patients to find themselves on the wrong end of a prescription error.
Every year, around 1.3 million people are injured because of medication errors, according to the Food and Drug Administration. At least one person dies every day in the United States because of a medication error. Prescription errors account for roughly seven out of 10 medication errors.
These statistics are worrisome for all patients. We depend on our healthcare providers to take care of us when we’re sick, and we have few ways to guard ourselves against errors by our providers. This is especially true when it comes to medication. Around 60 percent of patients take prescription medication, marking an all-time high in our nation’s history. Roughly 15 percent of Americans take five or more medications, nearly double the rate of patients taking that many medications in 2000.
How Medication Errors Happen
Medication errors can occur at any point in the distribution process, from the making of the drug to the filing of a prescription. When a patient receives a prescription medication, that medicine might be subject to any number of steps in the process, including prescribing, repackaging, dispensing, administering and monitoring.
Errors in this process can be due to many factors. The FDA lists some of the most common causes of these mistakes. They include: poor communication; ambiguities in product names; directions for use; medical abbreviations or writing; poor procedures or techniques; lack of product knowledge or training; similar labeling or packaging of a product; and patient misuse because of poor understanding of the directions for use of the product.
Mistakes in the medication supply chain can be due to distraction, fatigue, stress or several other factors. Just like everyone else, healthcare providers will make mistakes. A key difference is that when providers make mistakes, patients can suffer monumental illness or injury. That’s why so many safeguards are put into place to protect patients from harm.
Consequences of Medication Errors
When a patient takes the wrong medication, the wrong dose of a medication or takes two medicines that have dangerous interactions, they may experience serious injuries. Prescription errors can worsen a patient’s condition, create a new complication or cause an overdose.
A patient might also experience other consequences that compound the physical harm of a medication error. A patient might incur expensive medical costs due to tests and treatments. They could lose time at work or lose their jobs entirely. They might also suffer disability. These costs make life even more difficult for a patient who likely already suffers from a serious medical condition.
Why Pharmacists are the Gatekeepers of Medicine
Pharmacists have a duty to make sure they fill a prescription with the proper drug and dosage. They also have the job of educating patients about dangerous interactions and informing patients how they should take these medications. But their role doesn’t end there.
Pharmacists keep track of product recalls to make sure they aren’t giving patients potentially dangerous drugs. Pharmacists also double-check the prescription given by doctors to make sure it is in keeping with the condition of the patient. Essentially, they are in charge of catching other people’s mistakes before those errors impact a patient.
The role a pharmacist plays in our healthcare system is defined by both law and the oversight of their Board of Pharmacy. Every state has their own Board of Pharmacy, each setting forth strict requirements that pharmacists must adhere to. These rules, regulations and guidelines are designed to ensure the safety and health of patients and to make pharmacists accountable for catching mistakes in the medication distribution process.
Patients might wonder who is responsible for medical errors, especially errors that cause them serious harm. It’s frustrating to learn that their providers don’t communicate with each other and that when it comes to accountability, the system is sorely lacking in oversight. It is often the case that one doctor doesn’t know what the other is doing, and that it is up to the patient to fend for themselves.
These problems shouldn’t exist in the prescription process. Pharmacists exist not only to see that a prescription gets filled, but also to ensure that drug makers or doctors haven’t made serious errors. This is one area in which there is a clear line of accountability. Of course, that doesn’t mean that mistakes don’t happen. But at the very least, patients know who is responsible for keeping them safe from critical errors.