1. Health

Why Do Prescription Drug Errors Occur?

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Updated October 26, 2011

Can you determine what all these drug pairs have in common?

  • Inderal and Adderrall
  • Zyrtec and Zantac
  • Celebrex and Cerebyx

You're right -- they are all sound-alike drugs. Not surprisingly they get substituted for each other regularly because their names sound so similar.

There are hundreds of cases of similar spellings and/or pronunciations being monitored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for possible problems. Others include Aciphex (for stomach reflux) and Aricept (for memory), Allegra (for allergies) and Viagra (for erectile dysfunction) or Fosomax (for bone) and Flomax (for veins and arteries).

The problem is, these and dozens of other similarly named drugs cause patients to get sicker or die because they are not the right drug for the patient. Medication errors affect more then 1.5 million Americans each year in hospitals alone, according to the Institute of Medicine.

There are other types of medication errors, too. Mistakes may stem from incorrect dosage, meaning too much or too little of the drug is provided. Bad interactions, when a patient already takes a drug that conflicts with a newly prescribed drug, cause problems, too. Or a patient might be given a drug he is allergic to, whether or not the doctor knows about the allergy.

Most mistakes boil down to human error. Doctors, notorious for bad handwriting, may choose the right drug, but the pharmacist may read it incorrectly. Alternatively, the doctor may get two names mixed up, and the pharmacist dispenses what he reads, not knowing it's the wrong drug. Or the pharmacist mixes up the names. Sometimes the prescription gets transferred by phone from the doctor's office to the pharmacy, but the people making or receiving the phone calls make mistakes.

How can you be sure you are getting the right prescription? It's up to us as patients to be sure we get the right medicine in the right dosage. There are some simple steps you can take to make that confirmation.

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