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Could drug shortages lead to increase in medication errors?

Recently, there have been reports that the country is experiencing major medication shortages. According to a pharmacist trade group, there are currently around 150 medications that are in short supply.

The drugs involved in these shortages serve a variety of medical purposes. These shortages reportedly are affecting hospitals throughout the nation.

Could these shortages impact patient care?

Hospitals have taken many steps in response to these medication shortages. One of these strategies could potentially have negative implications for patients.

This strategy involves using older types of drugs as replacements for the scarce drugs. In many cases, these older drugs are just as effective as the drugs they are replacing. Thus, at first glance, this seems like a good way for hospitals to address the shortages without compromising patient care.

However, a problem can arise when hospitals use this strategy. The problem is that some doctors are not as familiar with these older drugs as they are with the scarce ones. And, as we have discussed before, when a physician is less familiar with a drug, he or she could be more prone to committing an error when administering it to a patient.

Thus, the current medication shortages could potentially be putting some patients at a greater risk of experiencing medication errors. These errors can have many negative impacts on a patient's health.

Can hospitals take steps to address this?

Thankfully, there are steps that hospitals can take to address the potential problems that can go along with using older drugs as replacements for scarce drugs. For instance, hospitals could provide their doctors with special training on the use of these replacement drugs. This training could serve to counteract a physician's lack of familiarity with these drugs.

Thus, one hopes that hospitals are taking all steps possible to ensure that the recent medicine shortages do not result in a reduction in the quality of care patients receive.

Source: The Los Angeles Times, "Drug shortages cause hospitals to use older types of medicines," Bruce Japsen, 21 Feb 2011

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