As a Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyer, I know medication errors are a major source of medical mistakes for patients of all ages. But I was disappointed to see an April 20 article about federal data showing that the majority of all medication error victims who wind up in the hospital are seniors. The data comes from the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. That agency found that medication errors have grown by 52 percent between 2004 and 2008, the last year it studied. That's 1.9 million people injured badly enough to need hospitalization, up from 1.2 people injured in 2004. Another 838,000 patients were treated in emergency rooms and released, 18 percent of whom were 65 or older.
The medication errors included errors patients made themselves and mistakes by caregivers providing the medicines. Reasons included overdoses, mistakes by pharmacists, bad reactions, mixing incompatible medications and more. The kind of drug that most often sent people to the hospital was corticosteroids, a class of drugs used to treat arthritis, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease and several other conditions. That class of drugs was responsible for 283,700 hospitalizations. Next most common were painkillers (269,400 cases), blood thinners (218,800), cancer and immune-system drugs (234,300) and heart and blood pressure medications (191,300). In emergency rooms, visitors most often didn't specify a drug, but also cited painkillers, antibiotics, tranquilizers and antidepressants, and corticosteroids.
This news concerns me as a Pennsylvania nursing home lawyer because people in nursing homes are likely to have complicated medical needs. Families generally put their loved ones in nursing homes when their needs are too constant or complicated for the families to handle themselves. For the same reasons, nursing home patients are less likely to be able to notice a mistake with medicine or speak up when they do. At the same time, nursing home employees can make mistakes or even intentionally make an unauthorized change in medication. Even the best intentions can fall flat when nursing homes are understaffed, robbing employees of the time they need to make sure details are right. And in some cases, employees have perpetrated Pennsylvania nursing home abuse by stealing painkillers from patients for their own use, intentionally giving inappropriate sedatives or withholding medication to save money. In either case, it's unacceptable for an institution we trust with the care of vulnerable older loved ones. Families who find themselves in this position should talk to a Philadelphia injury lawyer right away.