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How ER pharmacists can help reduce medication errors

Medication errors are among the most prevalent types of medical malpractice. Wrong dosages, mistaken prescriptions, overlooked drug interactions or missed contraindications - all can lead to serious harm. And these mistakes frequently happen in emergency rooms and hospitals, where staff members are stretched thin.

A recent study has shed light on a possible solution to this problem. Conducted by the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, the study compared patient outcomes in the emergency department when pharmacists (or pharm techs) took medication histories instead of physicians or nurses.

The result? This one simple change reduced mistakes by more than 80 percent.

Why it makes a difference

Taking a detailed medication history is critical for avoiding errors and oversights. Traditionally, ER staff or hospitalists have taken these histories upon admission. Yet they often don't have the time or resources to do a thorough job.

By delegating this important task to pharmaceutical staff, doctors and nurses are freed up to focus on other aspects of patient care. Additionally, giving a single care provider ownership over medication histories alleviates confusion among staff members who would otherwise be tempted to rely on electronic health records that might not be accurate.

High-risk patients will benefit

Pharmacists can be especially useful when it comes to high-risk patients with complex histories. They may need to review and reconcile information from multiple sources - electronic health records, the patient's primary care physician, prescription databases and patient-provided lists, to name a few. In cases where patients are unable to communicate for themselves, the pharmacist may need to work with family members to establish an accurate medication history.

In response to the study, Cedars-Sinai now has pharmaceutical staff address medication histories in high-risk patients. Other hospitals may soon follow suit.

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