Most hospitalized patients and families don’t realize that life-threatening medication errors are regularly thwarted by pharmacists. They are truly the unsung heroes of patient care. I just finished a locum tenens assignment at a hospital that uses EPIC as their electronic medical records system, and I was stunned by the impossibly complex medication reconciliation process. Each time a patient is admitted to the hospital, or transferred to another part of the hospital, a physician must review, approve, and re-order their medications. While this may seem like a good way to insure that medication errors are avoided, it actually has the exact opposite effect.
Because EPIC keeps lists of home meds, discontinued meds, and current meds available for review and reactivation, it takes little more than one misplaced check box to order the wrong dose or type of medication. Physicians who transfer a patient to another service can indicate their intended medication list and keep it “on hold” for the receiving physician to review and approve. Unfortunately, the software’s tab system is so complex that it’s extremely difficult to find that list and activate it. Lost in a sea of admissions tasks and order boxes in different fonts, colors, and drop down menus, one often accidentally reviews and approves discontinued types and doses of medicines. The only protection against such errors is the hospital pharmacist.
With each new admission to the inpatient rehabilitation unit, I had to resort to calling a pharmacist for help. I was terrified that I would accidentally insert medication errors into the patient’s order set by carrying forward discontinued meds. The long-suffering pharmacists explained to me that “most physicians make medication order errors in EPIC with each admission.” They said that they regularly had to talk physicians out of throwing their computer out the window in a state of extreme frustration. They also said that their EPIC user environment looked very different (and less confusing) than what the physicians used, so that they couldn’t even provide real-time phone guidance regarding order entry process.
The scary thing is that EPIC has the largest market share of any EMR in the United States. It is also (in my experience) the most prone to medical errors due to its overly complex medication reconciliation process. I have used other EMRs that have far simpler and more intelligent medication order entry processes. Soarian (Sieman’s EMR, just sold to Cerner) has, for example, an outstanding order entry system. So my complaint is not that “all EMRs are bad” – it’s that some have particularly flawed designs that are causing real harm to untold millions of patients. We just haven’t documented the harm yet. I tremble at the thought of what we’d find.
Until electronic medication reconciliation is made safer, pharmacists will be working overtime to correct records and protect patients from carry over errors. I thank my lucky stars that I have had vigilant, determined pharmacists by my side as I cared for very complex, sick patients who were exceptionally vulnerable to dosing errors. There has never been a more important time to exercise caution when entering hospital medication orders, or to express your appreciation for pharmacists. Without their help we might all be experiencing medication errors of EPIC proportions.
Lots of smart people over the years have been trying to figure out why people stop taking their medications within the first 12 months. Within the first 12-months of starting a new prescription, patient compliance rates drop to less than 50%. This rate is even lower for people with multiple chronic conditions taking one or more prescription medications.
If these medications are so important to patients, why do they just stop taking them? It defies common sense. Sure issues like medication cost, forgetfulness, lack of symptoms, and psychosocial issues like depression play a role in patient non-compliance. But there also something else going on…or in this case not going on.
The problem is that doctors and patients simply don’t talk much about new medications once prescribed. Here’s what I mean. Let’s say that at a routine check-up a physician tells a patient that he/she wants to put them on a medication to help them control their cholesterol. The doctor spends about 50 seconds telling the patient about the medication. The patient nods their head takes the prescription and boom…the visit is over. Read more »
The University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) has made a significant announcement that could be a watershed moment for how medications are given to hospital patients in the United States.
In a typical hospital setting, patients are receiving many different types of prescription medications — ranging from mundane vitamins to more intense drugs such as chemotherapy. In the thousands of times medications are given to patients, and with the high number of humans handling the process of organizing and giving the medications, human error is bound to occur. And medication errors can be life threatening — especially if related to a chemotherapy agent.
UCSF wants to make the rate of error for medication administration to be zero. In order to do this, they are using robot technology to prepare and track medications, with the main goal, obviously, being to improve patient safety. In the phase-in of the project, not a single error occurred in the 350,000 doses of medication prepared — remarkable.
Once computers at the new pharmacy electronically receive medication orders from UCSF physicians and pharmacists, the robotics pick, package, and dispense individual doses of pills. Machines assemble doses onto a thin plastic ring that contains all the medications for a patient for a 12-hour period, which is bar-coded.
There are some key advantages this system brings to the workflow of a hospital setting:
– The robots can do chemotherapy dosing, one of the toughest and most sensitive things to do. They can also do complex IV medication dosing.
– There is no touching of the medications by hand. The medications come from the manufacturer, are processed by the robots, and then sent to the nurses and the patient’s bedside in sterile packaging.
– The robots allow for pharmacists and nurses to be more efficient by taking away repetitive tasks. While they do not replace either, they enable a healthcare system already stretched for resources to increase productivity.
– The system costs $15 million, but with the payoff in regards to improved patient outcomes, as well as time saved, the investment should make this endeavor by UCSF more than worthwhile.
From KevinMD’s medical blog, guest post by Toni Brayer, M.D., shares a story where a team approach in medicine is critical for quality patient care.
Dr. Brayer writes:
“Medicine is a team sport and it is only when the team is humming and everyone is working together that patients can have good outcomes. Hospital errors, medication errors, poor communication between doctors and nurses are prevented by adherence to protocols that everyone follows. It takes laser focus, measuring outcomes and a great deal of hard work to ensure everyone is pulling together in a hospital. The fact that these bedside nurses take the time to work on error reduction and patient safety is really amazing. Have you seen how hard nurses work? My hat is off to these dedicated caregivers.”
Dr. Brayer is exactly right when she writes “medicine is a team sport.” Read more »
Hospitals today are aggressively buying physician practices in their local markets. Why? Hospitals want to solidify their referral base for inpatient and outpatient referrals as well as increase their negotiating power with insurance companies.
Over 50% of physician practices are now owned by hospitals according to the Medical Group Management Association. As such, many one-time private practitioners are now hospital employees.
Having done physician recruitment in a prior life, I know that before buying a practice that hospitals look at a variety of things including the practice’s patient volume, number of hospital referrals, estimates of patient turnover, and so on. One of the things we did not consider years ago in evaluating and buying a physician practice was the quality of the physician’s patient communication skills and supporting practices. I doubt that things have changed much since. Read more »
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