Next time you get a prescription filled, look at the label very carefully. Getting the wrong drug or
the wrong dosage kills hundreds or thousands of people each year, with many times that number
Renegade health reporter Nicholas Regush — a self-imposed exile from ABC News — provides
ii long list of specific problems:
Poor handwriting. Verbal orders. Ambiguous orders. Prescribing errors. Failure to write
orders. Unapproved uses. When the order is not modified or cancelled. Look-alike and
sound-alike drug names. Dangerous abbreviations. Faulty drug distribution systems in
hospital. Failure to read the label or poor labeling. Lack of knowledge about drugs. Lack of
knowledge concerning proper dose. Lack of knowledge concerning route of administration.
After pouring over death certificates, sociology professor David Philips — an expert in mortality
statistics — determined that drug errors kill 7,000 people each year in the US. His study was
published in The Lancet, probably the most prestigious medical journal in the world. The
Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academies of Science, also estimated 7,000.
Interestingly, the Food and Drug Administration published the lowball figure of 365 annually
(one per day). But even the FDA admits that such bungling injures 1.3 million people each year.
New York Newsday cited several specific cases, such as: "In 1995, a Texas doctor wrote an
illegible prescription causing the patient to receive not only the wrong medication, but at eight
times the drug's usually recommended strength. The patient, Ramon Vasquez, died. In 1999, a
court ordered the doctor and pharmacy to pay the patient's family a total of $450,000, the largest
amount ever awarded in an illegible prescription case."
Besides doctors' indecipherable chicken scratch, similar-sounding drug names are another big
culprit. Pharmaceutical companies have even started warning medical professionals to be careful
with the cookie-cutter names of their products. In a typical example, Celebrex, Cerebyx, Celexa,
and Zyprexa sometimes get confused. (Respectively, they're used to treat arthritis, seizures,
depression, and psychosis.) According to WebMD: "Bruce Lambert, an assistant professor of
pharmacy administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says there are 100,000 potential
pairings of drug names that could be confused."