We've all heard the old jokes about doctors' handwriting being illegible. But medical errors are a very real problem. Newsweek reports that medication errors injure 1.5 million people per year. Even if only a small percentage of those errors are due to poor handwriting, preventing those errors would still amount to better health for tens of thousands of patients.
There's hope for those patients in the results of a new study out of Australia. In the study, two hospitals implemented computerized prescription systems. The result? Errors in prescriptions dropped by 60 percent.
Of course, prescription errors can take many forms, and replacing handwriting with computerized entry might not fix the problem of a dosage that should have been 1.0 mg being written as 10 mg. In some cases, that ten-fold difference could be fatal. That's why these modern computerized systems area also able to check dosages to ensure they're within a normal range, as well as to double-check that the drug prescribed is appropriate based on the patient's symptoms and other drugs the person may already be taking. In short, the system adds an additional check to those that should already be occurring by the doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and patients.
While the this study is promising, an estimate by the Leapfrog Group, a healthcare research and advocacy organization, says that today only 17 percent of hospitals it studied in the U.S. are currently using computerized prescription ordering like the system in the study.
That may change soon, however, thanks to a provision in the 2008 stimulus bill, which creates financial incentives to healthcare providers who implement new information technology systems. Many of these electronic systems are related to patient recordkeeping, which also has the potential to reduce medical errors if used properly. By implementing these new systems together, healthcare providers should be able to eliminate many unnecessary errors.
Switching from paper to computer is often difficult and these computerized systems bring their own risks of error. That's why today even medical experts are stressing the importance of patients taking charge of their healthcare decisions. If you see something that looks unusual with a prescription for yourself or a loved one, speak up! Ask questions of the doctor or pharmacist, and don't stop until you're satisfied that the treatment and prescription are proper. If you still have concerns about errors that might have occurred in your care, talk to an experienced medical malpractice attorney.