study finds seniors at heightened risk of medication errors

The phrase “medication errors” likely brings to mind images of pharmacies dispensing the wrong prescription drug or nurses administering the wrong dose of a drug. But a new report in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests another type of medication error may be plaguing seniors in Pennsylvania and across North America.

Dr. Chaim Bell recently conducted a study of 400,000 elderly patients with chronic conditions that require medication. The study revealed that when such patients enter the hospital, they rarely receive their regular medications. They are also unlikely to continue taking the needed medicine after leaving the hospital.

All of the patients in the study had faithfully filled their prescriptions for at least one year before they were admitted to the hospital. They were taking medications that fall into one of five categories:

  • Statins for high cholesterol
  • Blood thinners
  • Prescriptions to treat hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
  • Inhalers (for asthma, emphysema, etc.)
  • Medicines to reduce stomach acid (for patients with ulcers, acid reflux, GERD or other chronic gastric conditions)

Abruptly stopping these kinds of medications can, as Dr. Bell puts it, “lead to a whole host of problems.” Patients who discontinue using a regular medication of this kind often find themselves back in the hospital because their conditions become much worse without the necessary medication.

Unfortunately, elderly patients who are admitted to the hospital often find themselves in just that situation. For example, patients who were regularly taking blood thinners were 86 percent more likely to stop taking the medication after a hospital stay than patients who were not hospitalized.

Patients who were admitted to the ICU were even less likely to receive their regular medications during their hospital stay or to continue using them after being released. Dr. Bell does point out that emergency medical care often requires the “deliberate suspension of certain medications.” The problem, he says, is that medical professionals forget to instruct patients to resume taking the prescriptions once the crisis has passed.

The recent study says that “ignorance or error” is the most common causes of this kind of medication error. Unfortunately, patients are the ones who pay the price. For example, patients who were taking blood thinners regularly and stopped after leaving the hospital were found to be 10 percent more likely to develop a serious illness or die than those who did not stop taking their medications.

Hopefully Dr. Bell’s study will encourage medical professionals to pay closer attention to the medications that patients are taking before their hospital stays. Nurses, doctors and others involved in patient care must avoid making this kind of potentially life-threatening medication error.

Source: HealthDay via US News and World Report, “Mainstay Meds Often Cut Off Accidentally After Hospital Stay,” Amanda Gardner, 23 Aug. 2011

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