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Increase in U.S. Medication Errors Cause for Alarm for Patients, Aging Baby Boomers

According to a report by the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality, hospital patients who experienced adverse reactions to medications have increased 52 percent over the last five years.

The agency-a subset of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that facilitates research to help improve patient safety and quality health care-found the problem by tracking nationwide statistics from 2004 through 2008. They found 1.9 million adverse medication reactions, ranging from skin irritation to poisoning, among in-patient hospital stays in 2008 and another 800,000 in emergency room visits.

However, according to Connecticut Hospital Association spokesperson Kimberley Hostetler, drug mistakes, including medication errors in Connecticut, are the most common type of medical error.

The Connecticut Pharmacists Association (CPA) recent partnership with the University of Connecticut provides ample evidence to back up this theory. The two organizations examined the prescriptions given to Medicaid patients and a review of medication records from 89 high-risk patients revealed, on average, 10 medication problems per person. Problems included drug interactions, drug duplication and poor cost-control.

Corticosteroids-used to treat an array of medical conditions from skin rashes to immune diseases-was linked to 13.2 percent of the harmful patient outcomes. Commonly known as "blood thinners," Anticoagulants also ranked high among the medications linked to adverse reactions.

Hostetler says, because of "the aging population, patients with multiple diseases/disorders, the increased use of pharmaceuticals, and the increased use of multiple medications, the risk of errors or adverse events is even higher."

Additionally, Marghie Giuliano, executive vice president of CPA, says that since patients today visit multiple doctors to treat different conditions and take a growing number of medications, communication and coordination between prescribing physicians is essential.

Luckily, 21-century technology has developed systems and software programs to help reduce these errors. Many pharmacists in Connecticut and all across the country today rely on pharmacy software programs to safely navigate an expanding assortment of medications. Connecticut hospitals also rely on electronic health records, bar coding systems and other programs to reduce errors.

It remains to be seen, however, whether new and improved technological advances will stop the increase in the number of medical errors or adverse events-particularly as the baby boomers begin to retire in record numbers.