Electronic health records may have the potential to help make healthcare more efficient and patient histories more readily available. Many professionals and officials hope that this will eventually lead to a decrease in healthcare costs with an increase in quality and patient satisfaction. The hope is so great that federal law now requires that doctors and hospitals transition to the use of electronic records by 2015, a switch that more than half have already made. However, until the technology has been fine-tuned, many healthcare professionals are wary of the effects these record systems could have on the rate of medical errors across the nation.
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Prescription errors have deadly consequences
A Dunedin, New Zealand man recently died after his doctor prescribed the wrong dosing schedule for his potent medication. The 72-year-old man suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and went to his doctor for a routine visit. While there, the doctor lowered his dose, but she erroneously indicated that the man should take the powerful drug methotrexate three times a day instead of three times a week. Soon, the man’s immune system was severely compromised and he was admitted to the hospital with methotrexate poisoning. While in the hospital, doctors discovered that he had sustained a severe injury to his gastrointestinal tract as a result of the high dosage and was hemorrhaging internally. He was too unstable to undergo reparative surgery and died the following day.
This example of prescription error is far from an isolated incident, and healthcare professionals believe these occurrences may become more common with mandatory use of electronic health record systems. With one misplaced click, nurses or doctors may inadvertently order the wrong medications or the correct medications in the wrong dose. According to Scientific American, electronic medical records are easily filled out incorrectly. In one instance, a man nearly died of shock when he received a dose of ampicillin after his allergy to penicillin was improperly entered into his electronic chart.
According to the NY Times, recent studies performed at the request of the federal government have estimated that when electronic health records become implemented fully by healthcare workers, errors in the records could contribute to 60,000 or more adverse events every year. A projection was used instead of a study of current error rates because there is no centralized body in existence today that is tasked with monitoring medical mistakes across the nation.
Fear over litigation and negative publicity currently have doctors and hospitals tight-lipped about prescription and other medical errors that occur on their watch. Many in the medical community, including a panel on health information technology safety from the Institute of Medicine, have called on the federal government to create an independent agency that would be responsible for monitoring medical errors to help eliminate the problems and begin working on potential solutions. As of today, no such agency has been created.