Posted On: July 11, 2014 by Patrick A. Malone

24-Hour Pharmacists Make for a Safer ER for Kids

Medication errors are far too common among hospital patients, but one pediatric hospital is taking measures to reduce them and the sometimes life-threatening harm they can cause.

Making fewer medication mistakes, which, according to a story on NPR.org, contribute to more than 7,000 U.S. deaths every year, is a matter of more professionals remaining on the job for a longer period of time — specifically, hospital pharmacists. In the emergency department at Children's Medical Center in Dallas, pharmacists who specialize in emergency medicine review each prescription to ensure it's the correct one in the correct dose.

Children’s has 10 full-time emergency pharmacists, more than anywhere else in the country, and they’re on call 24 hours a day.

"Every single order I put in," Dr. Rustin Morse told NPR, "is reviewed in real time by a pharmacist in the emergency department prior to dispensing and administering the medication." Rustin is chief quality office and a pediatric ER doc.

That quality-control seems like a no-brainer, but especially in a busy ER, doctors treat fast and move on to the next patient. Writing down the name and quantity of a drug quickly invites mistakes. But in this ER, if that happens, it’s more likely a pharmacist will catch it.

Medication errors, as NPR notes, can be the result of poor handwriting, confusion between drugs with similar names, poor packaging design or confusion between metric or other dosing units. Often, more than one factor is involved.

That’s particularly dangerous for children because medication errors are three times more likely to occur with youngsters than adults. They absorb drugs at a different rate from adults.

So, for the nearly 20,000 drug orders processed at Children’s in a given week, pharmacists review all pertinent information — the child's weight, allergies, medications and health insurance coverage.

The electronic medical record system also automatically checks orders to prevent errors. You need both reviews, because neither human nor machine is infallible.

Dr. James Svenson, associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Wisconsin, co-authored a study in the Annals of Emergency Medicine that found that even with an electronic medical record, 1 in 4 children's prescriptions had errors; 1 in 10 adult prescriptions also was wrong. So now, there’s a 24-hour ER pharmacist at Svenson’s hospital.

The reason most hospitals don’t embrace this practice is the usual one: money. "If you're in a small ER, it's hard enough just to have adequate staffing for your patients in terms of nursing and techs,” Svenson said, “let alone to have a pharmacist sitting down. If the volume isn't there, it's hard to justify."

But the investment has been proved to work. Researchers for the Journal of Pediatric Pharmacology and Therapeutics showed that prescription review can reduce the number of hospital readmissions. That not only saves money, but also lives.

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