On the surface, adverse drug events or reactions appear to pose primarily a clinical challenge.
But scratch the top layer and you discover that a bad mix or an inappropriate dose of drugs has a major impact on medical costs and the optimal use of health resources. That's why healthcare providers should rally behind the National Patient Safety Partnership, a coalition of health industry groups dedicated to reducing medical errors.
The coalition, which includes the American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association and the Veterans Affairs Health System, estimates as many as 8% of hospitalized patients will have an adverse drug event and that about 100,000 injuries or deaths each year can be attributed to drug interactions or dosage errors.
Those most familiar with the problem believe the alarming numbers could be greatly reduced through improved communication among physicians, staffs and patients; clearer operational guidelines; and proper use of computer technology.
Senior management's commitment and leadership are essential. The goal is to build a culture within a healthcare organization that makes everyone accountable for safety and quality. The effort can also serve as a linchpin for the health system's overall quality and risk management efforts.
Bar coding, electronic patient medical records and computerized physician order-entry systems are useful tools. For example, pharmacists can use bar coding to track drugs and flag potential problems. Also, physicians can tap into computerized data banks to monitor possible problems with the drugs they prescribe.
And don't discount the human factor. Patient involvement and responsibility are paramount. Physicians must insist that patients reveal every medication they take, and patients must insist on understandable directions before they take any drug.
Managers should promote this kind of knowledge sharing as a smart and safe way to conduct business. In the end, health professionals have primary responsibility for helping patients balance medical risks and benefits.