medication errors could easily be reduced but doctors resist

When we were children, learning to print and write cursive was a mandatory unit in elementary school. Although handwriting was still required for the Millennial Generation, they were also required to take typing classes. Now, children throughout Pittsburgh are required to spend less time perfecting their handwriting and more time becoming efficient typists.

The transition is not only true for children but also for most professions. Except one.

Despite all the advancements in medicine and technology, many doctors still write prescriptions by hand. However, in an article about medication errors caused by illegible handwriting, penmanship was accurately described as “a modern form of hieroglyphics, intelligible only to literary scholars.”

But nurses are not literary scholars, and pharmacists are not mind-readers. When doctors write prescriptions that are not easily legible, it often leads to preventable adverse drug events. Conversely, when doctors use onscreen technology to select prescriptions, the chance for prescription errors is reduced greatly.

In one study, researchers recorded the number of errors when drugs were prescribed by physicians, physician assistants and nurse practitioners. The researchers reported 37 errors for every 100 paper prescriptions, compared to about seven errors per 100 for those who used e-prescribing software. Those numbers don’t even include legibility issues, when pharmacists called the providers to confirm an illegible prescription.

Other studies have suggested that the error rate is about five per 100, with about seven percent of those errors having the potential for serious harm. Despite the high number of errors, only 36 percent of prescriptions were delivered electronically in 2011.

Every new piece of technology costs money, with some computer systems requiring an investment of tens of thousands of dollars for a hospital. Even so, when the lives of innocent people are on the line and the solution is so straight-forward, it’s baffling that more hospitals don’t invest the money to prevent medication errors.

Source: The New York Times, “Chicken Scratches vs. Electronic Prescriptions,” Randall Stross, April 28, 2012

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