If you are over age 65, there's a pretty good chance that you take five or more medications per week — about 40% of the people in your age group do. And with so many people taking more than one medication, the situation is ripe for the occurrence of harmful side effects. But how common are these adverse drug effects? Are they preventable? A recent study set out to answer these questions.
The study involved over 30,000 patients age 65 and older. The researchers assessed the medical records of each participant for one year. They found the use of medications resulted in over 1,500 harmful side effects, 27% of which were considered preventable. Of the side effects that occurred, 38% were serious, life-threatening, or fatal. And these reactions were more likely to be preventable than less-serious side effects.
Errors in prescribing or monitoring were associated with the preventable harmful side effect in 58% and 61% of cases, respectively. Errors made by the patient in following prescription instructions played a role 21% of the time. Preventable side effects most commonly resulted from cardiovascular medications, diuretics, non-opioid pain medications, blood-sugar lowering drugs, and anticoagulants.
The medical profession is trying to find ways to prevent harmful side effects. In the future, a computerized system may be used to help prevent errors made in prescription writing. But you can help prevent medication errors now. Increase your involvement in your drug regimen and keep track of and closely follow prescription instructions. Ask your doctor about your prescription and make certain the label on the medication matches what you were told. Be sure to read the product information given to you with your prescription and be aware of the symptoms of possible negative side effects. Most importantly, if you are confused by instructions, don't be afraid to ask for help from your physician or pharmacist.
April 2003 Update