examining the potential dangers of automatic prescription refills

Given the hectic pace of everyday life, most of us come to appreciate those little things that can save us an extra trip or spare us a few extra minutes. For instance, many people now pay their bills exclusively on their tablet computers or smartphones, avoiding the need to write out a check and drive to the nearest mailbox.

These conveniences also extend to the medical realm. Consider the automatic refill programs run by pharmacies, which ensure that customers never run out of their medications and even notify them — via email or robocall — when it’s time to pick up their prescription.

In fact, it’s not just customers who are enamored of auto refills for prescriptions, but pharmacy staff as well. That’s because the system helps ensure that customers follow the instructions of their physician, and allows for a more manageable and less chaotic workflow.

Some experts, however, are warning that the auto refill system may not be without certain dangers to customers.

Specifically, they argue that auto refill systems for prescription medications are flawed in that the electronic prescribing systems to which they are linked are unable to communicate discontinued prescriptions. What this means is that unless a cancellation is communicated by a customer or a physician, the auto refill system will continue to dispense the older prescription.

The president of the Institute for Safe Medication Practices provides the example of a customer taking a heart medication that had been increased by his physician from 240 mg to 360 mg. In this case, the customer received not only the medication with the new dosage, but also the medication with the old dosage via the auto refill system.

Fortunately, the problem was discovered after the customer called into the pharmacist to alert him of the discrepancy. However, the ISMP president points out that serious problems could have arisen if the patient started taking different doses of his medication.

Experts indicate that more attention must be paid to fixing this flaw in the electronic prescribing and auto refill system, and that the fix itself likely wouldn’t need to be overly complex.

Here’s hoping we see this happen sooner than later …

Have you ever experienced a prescription error via the auto refill systems at your local pharmacy?

Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Pharmacy automatic prescription refills can contribute to medication errors and waste,” Michael Cohen, Feb. 10, 2015

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