Insights - Article

Medical Errors: How Telepharmacy Can Help Mitigate the Now Third-Leading Cause of Death

By Hong T. Lam • May 19, 2016

Medication Safety

A recent study published in The BMJ, formerly the British Medical Journal, estimates that medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States, responsible for over 251,000 fatalities in 2013, ten percent of the annual U.S. number. This would place medical errors behind only heart disease and cancer, which were responsible for 611,000 deaths and 585,000 deaths in 2013, respectively. There is some speculation as to the accuracy of this new data, but nevertheless, the fact remains that medical errors are a significant cause of concern for the U.S. healthcare system and its patients.

A major contributor to this epidemic of preventable deaths is medication errors –- which are often overlooked across the continuum of care. However, taking advantage of new technology and IT solutions can help mitigate such errors and promote increased patient safety. Despite the promise of the “latest and greatest” IT tools, providers must do their due diligence when utilizing health IT, as the improper implementation of new innovations can reduce the efficacy of these tools.

As an example, the Leapfrog Group recently reported that computerized physician order entry (CPOE) systems failed to flag 39 percent of potentially harmful errors and 13 percent of potentially fatal orders. Rather than being a fault of the technology, this likely resulted from hospitals viewing this solution as a ‘plug-and-play’ system. Hospitals need to consider the appropriate coordination, clinical support, and training to best leverage these solutions, instead of assuming these technologies can run themselves autonomously.

In the case of CPOE, telepharmacy can act as a supportive resource to help increase accuracy and thereby improve patient care and reduce errors. In their day-to-day routines, telepharmacists help flag mistakes that the system may not catch, while also providing on-site hospital staff with more time to focus on patient care activities. Instead of having nurses or other providers take on the workflow burden of a pharmacist and review these medication orders, clinicians can focus on spending time with patients. In this capacity, they can reduce other avoidable errors that result from a lack of face time spent with patients.

While medical errors, like human errors, can never be fully avoided, the introduction of technologies and clinical support can help hospitals better tackle these issues and improve safety for their patients. Regardless of the debate around this latest report, the added attention to medical errors in hospitals is a positive and will assuredly prompt facilities to take the problem more seriously. Through a combination of innovative solutions and excellent clinical guidance, hospitals can ensure the highest levels of patient care and safety are being realized– creating a safer healthcare continuum and benefiting all parties in the long run.

Hong T. Lam, PharmD, is Director of Quality and Clinical Services at PipelineRx. As a founding member, she has been instrumental in the growth and development of the clinical services program. She also serves as an Associate Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Pharmacy.