In 2019, 4.38 billion prescriptions were filled in the US by pharmacies, healthcare providers, and nursing homes. Considering the population of the US is only around 330 million, this may point to an unrelated issue of overprescribing, but what this statistic does make clear is that there is plenty of room for error in prescription medications. If a pharmacist sends a patient home with the wrong medication or the wrong dose, the consequences can be serious, especially for the portion of the population who is most at risk, like the elderly and critically ill.
Pharmacies can and do make mistakes. Giving a wrong prescription may be the result of an accident, or it may be the result of negligence, but either way, the repercussions for some patients are catastrophic.
What is the risk of a pharmacy giving the wrong dose or medication?
Medical errors are more common in the US than most people would like to think. Although they are not commonly covered or discussed, medical errors are a very serious part of the healthcare issues in America.
Every year, medical errors from all categories kill as many as 98,000 Americans, making it the 8th leading cause of death in the United States according to a report from the Institute of Medicine. Of these medical error deaths, some 7,000 of them are attributed to some type of problem with a drug, known as an adverse drug event.
If you remove the qualification of death from the statistic, adverse drug events occur 1.5 million times in the US each year. That is a lot of preventable pain and suffering that is affecting the most vulnerable of our population.
One of the most common types of pharmacy errors is giving a patient the wrong medication or the wrong dosage. This type of error jeopardizes patient safety and could lead to serious adverse reactions like illness, injury, or death.
Obviously, a patient is most affected by a pharmaceutical error when they realize that their medication is wrong after they have already consumed it or after a symptom has occurred, like an allergic reaction. And just as bad, a patient may take a wrong medication or wrong dosage and notice no effect at all. These types of medication errors or dose errors can and do happen all the time.
Examples of Medication Errors in the United States
Although medication errors do not commonly make the news, some occasionally do, like the 2013 incidents in which multiple CVS pharmacies gave out medication in multiple different mixups.
In one instance, children were given breast cancer medication instead of a low dose of fluoride. By the time it was noticed, the pharmacy had been handing out the wrong medication for at least 2 months. Tamoxifen, the breast cancer medication given in error to the children victims, is known to have serious side effects like blood clots, strokes, uterine cancer, and cataracts. Whatever caused this error, it is clear that the children were put at serious risk by taking this medication.
At another CVS pharmacy in the same state (New Jersey), a drug used to treat schizophrenia was erroneously distributed instead of a medication used to treat high blood pressure. Likewise, pills to reduce cholesterol were distributed instead of pills to treat diabetes. One does not have to be a medical professional to see how these medications could cause serious harm or injury to an unsuspecting patient, especially when the medication they need is not being administered.
In a separate incident from 2014, one of the countries other leading pharmacies, Walgreens, was found to have given a teen boy the wrong medication for ADHD, instead giving him medication for asthma. This error was difficult for the family of the boy to spot since the label on the prescription bottle was accurate, but the pills inside were not.
After the teenager was acting erratically and displaying odd behavior, the family sought medical help which eventually caught the error, but not after the boy had been taking the wrong medication for a month.
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What causes a pharmacy error?
A pharmacy error does not have to occur at a traditional pharmacy. For those who are fortunate enough to have never dealt with certain medical scenarios, they may not realize that some hospitals and mental health facilities or wards have their own pharmacies to administer in-patient medications. These types of pharmacies have even more reason for oversight, since the patient often does not receive the bottle but instead the medication directly from the medical professional.
Pharmacy errors may take the form of giving the patient the wrong prescription, filling the prescription incorrectly, giving the patient too high or too low of a dose, or failing to provide a patient with enough information to help them understand the effects of the medication they are taking. These pharmaceutical errors can cause serious harm to patients.
So how do pharmacy errors occur?
Out of all the ways that a prescription medication can be mishandled, the 3 most common errors leading to incorrect prescriptions are:
- The doctor or healthcare provider writes a prescription for the wrong medication.
- The pharmacy gives the patient the wrong medication.
- The pharmacy gives the patient the right medication but the wrong dosage.
Some patients are conscientious enough to catch these mistakes if they are familiar with the drug they are taking, but for patients who are new to the medication or have never heard of it before, it is unlikely that they will assume their medication was mishandled. Pharmacies often give patients generics or medications from different manufacturers that often look very similar to other medications. Additionally, medication can have very difficult names; sometimes they even have names that are nearly identical to each other. Because of this, patients are programmed to trust their pharmacist and assume that whatever medication is in the bottle is the one they need.
Medication Errors and the Elderly
Our elderly population is the biggest consumer of prescription medications in the United States. Those that live on their own often takes many different medications multiple times per day, and those that live in nursing homes are often medicated directly by staff. Because of these issues, it is not uncommon for elderly people to suffer from a medication error, either at their own home or in a nursing home.
It cannot be stressed enough how vulnerable this population is. They may have decreased cognitive skills and eyesight, are on many more medications than younger people, and are often in a position in which they need to trust their many healthcare providers.
A statistic that clearly demonstrates the vulnerability of elderly people to wrong medications is an FDA estimate that says over 15,000 nursing home residents die annually from adverse medication events.
Wrong Medication or Wrong Dose in a Nursing Home
One of the serious problems that affect nursing homes in the US is staff shortages. This is one of the primary causes of overdosing residents or giving them the wrong medication. Some nursing home staff have been found guilty of over-medicating elderly residents simply to make them docile and less demanding. This problem is directly related to a high demand and low supply of nursing home employees and the extremely high rate of turnover among staff.
This lack of training and shortage of qualified staff members commonly leads to the wrong medication being distributed or the wrong dosage being administered.
Over-medicating or giving the wrong dose to any person has serious risks, but the elderly are especially at risk with weakened immune systems and sensitive medical needs. Older adults are at greater risk for serious side effects, like high blood pressure, internal bleeding, dizziness, seizures, breathing issues, coma, and even death.
When a nursing home or similar medical facility overdoses a patient or gives them the wrong drug, they may be liable for damages, including medical bills, pain and suffering, emotional trauma, and any other negative issue that the negligent error caused.
Protecting Yourself from Pharmaceutical Errors
To help prevent yourself or your loved one from being prescribed the wrong medication or dosage, review the following tips:
- Have the doctor write out the exact medication, its pharmaceutical name, any generic equivalents, and the exact dosage on a separate piece of paper so that you can compare it to what you receive from the pharmacy.
- Always inspect your prescription medications before you leave the pharmacy. Open the bag and check the content right there at the counter; it is your right.
- Verify the shape, color, and markings on the pill with the description on the bottle. If you have any concerns, speak to the pharmacist.
- If you happen to take the wrong medication or wrong dose, consult your healthcare provider or go to an emergency room immediately. It’s better to be safe than sorry when the consequences can be fatal.
- Keep your pharmacy updated on all your information, including your phone number, so that if any issues are discovered by your pharmacist they can contact your right away.
Getting Compensation for a Prescription Error
At Viles & Beckman, we understand the complicated nature of pharmacy error lawsuits and medical malpractice claims. Wrong prescription or wrong dose cases can have serious consequences for those affected, and these incidents should not be ignored. Contact the experienced personal injury attorneys at Viles & Beckman today to speak with one of our attorneys and to schedule a free consultation. We will help you to understand your legal rights and options while determining the best route to get you and your family the compensation you deserve. Contact us today by calling (239) 334-3933 or by filling out our online contact form.
About the Author of this Page: The above information was written or reviewed by one of the attorneys at Viles & Beckman LLC who have a combined experience of nearly 60 years: Marcus Viles, Michael Beckman or Maria Alaimo. The information provided in this article comes from years of experience trying legal cases outside and inside courtrooms throughout Florida along with extensive research.