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Overdosing America (Part 2)

Every year drug errors kill over 40,000 Americans. Find out how not to be a victim of bad healthcare.



Taking control of your medications is more vital than ever. Every year drug errors kill over 40,000 Americans, while another 1.5 million are injured. The U.S. government and private healthcare agencies are currently taking several steps to improve prescription safety. Twenty percent of doctors are using electronic prescriptions to eliminate errors caused by bad handwriting. Some hospitals now have computers that automatically calculate appropriate drug doses based on age and weight. They also flag possible allergies or drug interactions. The computer system used at the Vanderbilt Children's Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, has reduced prescription errors by more than 95 percent. Hospitals are also using other technologies to manage patient medication. Dr. Jonathan Perlin is the University’s Secretary for Health and Veterans Affairs. He explains, “We use a machine to match a barcode on the patient's wrist band with a barcode on the medication itself, making sure it's always the right medication and the right dose for the right patient. Robots are filling prescriptions 300 percent faster than people at high-tech pharmacies. But mistakes still happen, so always double check that your name, barcode, and social security number match. The most sophisticated computer systems also don’t have the power to overcome communication breakdowns between doctors, nurses, and patients. To help with these issues, a process called “Medication Reconciliation” was started in January 2006. It makes it mandatory for patients to give their medication history when they go to a hospital. Then their records must be kept up-to-date every step of the way. With these things in mind, places like Senior Corp. Inc. are developing web sites for people to keep their medical history online. Founder and CEO Tom Knox says, “That way you have a consistent information base that you can bring to your physician and to a hospital in an emergency situation -- that the hospital can download and at least read so they know they have a clean record.” But in order for this to work, you first need to know exactly what medications you are taking. Dr. Michael Roizen suggests, “Ask your doctor, because the doc will educate you on that. ‘Why am I getting this? How should I take this? What shouldn’t I take this with?’ If you shouldn’t take it with grapefruit, you should know that. If you want to take it with tea, you should know that. But each thing you should know exactly how long you should take it, how often, what should you take it with, what shouldn’t you, what adverse effects can you expect from it.” With all these questions, it’s a good idea to write down a check list and bring it to your doctor. Another question to include is: “Can I get a generic drug instead of the name brand?” But then you might be wondering if generics are as safe. They do have to meet quality standards through the food and drug administration to show that they are, in general, equivalent to the brand name medications. "Now, there are some medications where changing between generic and brand names is a little bit risky," Dr. Roizen says. "So in those instances what I would advise people is it’s okay to take the generic as long as you stay with the same generic from the same generic manufacturer. You shouldn’t be switching around because there might be minor variations." What about buying your prescriptions online? It’s often cheaper than your local pharmacy, but is it safe, especially when you’re ordering drugs from overseas? Dr. Roizen says, “We’ve all of a sudden got a rash of fake, forged pills, as we call it. They look the same. They have the same name on it. They’re pretty good at even putting all the individual markings on it. But they don’t have active ingredient in them.” So ask for generics, and only use mail-order drugs from America. But the safest and most important thing to do is talk to your pharmacist. Pharmacist Edward Davidson says, “You can develop a rapport with a pharmacist who will listen to you, who will take down your list of over-the-counter medications, herbal remedies and so forth, and who will allow [you] to identify any potential problems in your medication regimen.” Once you get your prescriptions, there are steps you can take to safely manage your medications. A simple, four-dollar solution is to use a weekly pillbox. If you need additional help, there are other, high-tech methods available. Knox advises, “That may be a service that makes a phone call or a family member make a phone call three times a day or twice a day or once a day to remind people to take their meds. It may be a two-way video phone, which we’re implementing that we can look and see that people are taking their medications. Or it may be a piece of technology that actually fills the medications in a lockbox, but then it will ring when it’s time to take the meds.” If possible, bring along a patient advocate to help you with your pills and other medical questions. Herb Clark is a former insurance executive. He says, “Definitely have that third party patient advocate in the hospital to help you when you’re having medication administered. Double check to make sure it’s the correct medication and to help avoid errors in lack of communication, or bad communication, with a particular staffing person in the hospital.” In the future, web sites, 24-hour hotlines, computer systems, and scientific breakthroughs will be used to give you the best treatments possible. “Ten years from now, we will know your geno, and we’ll know what pills will work best with each gene array. But right now, we don’t know that,” says Dr. Roizen. So today, it’s very important to take several steps to control your medications. Keep your medical history up-to-date. Be aggressive and ask questions every step of the way. Talk to your pharmacist and let him or her know your medical history. Follow the instructions on your medications. Hire expert consultants to help you manage your pills and answer questions. Educate yourself with the latest books, web sites, and other resources. Each of us needs to be our own best advocate. Neither the government nor the healthcare community can take care of it all. So now’s the time that we take responsibility for our health.


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