Medication errors are one of the most serious and easily preventable errors committed in hospitals around the country. According to the Institute of Medicine, medication errors result in 7,000 deaths, injure 1.5 million people and cost hospitals, insurance companies and providers over $3.5 billion annually.
From accidental overdoses to allergic reactions, errors in the transcription and distribution of medication can have serious and, in some cases, lethal consequences for patients. As a result, providers have long sought ways to improve patient safety. Reducing medication errors helps reduce costs and, ultimately, improves the level of care patients receive.
As questions about how to improve patient safety continue, a new study by Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) suggests that bar codes may be part of the answer. For the study, researchers at BWH compared patients who received medication through a bar code and electronic medication administration system and those who did not. By using the new system, transcription errors were eliminated and potential adverse events fell by 51 percent. Timing errors, which include getting the wrong dose at the wrong time, were reduced by 27 percent.
Nearly 6 million doses are issued at BWH annually and the researchers concluded that the new bar code system will prevent 90,000 serious medication errors every year.
Medication errors come in different forms, though transcription and dosage related errors are common. Poor handwriting by doctors has often been cited as the root cause for transcription errors. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, poor penmanship is responsible for 6 percent of all hospital medication errors. A study conducted in the 1970s found that nearly one-third of all physicians’ handwriting was illegible. More recent studies have cited an improvement, but still find a significant number of doctors have handwriting that is only marginally legible.