Medical errors that involve handwritten prescriptions

by Daphne Swancutt

Two people in the United States just died in the last hour. Seventeen more will die in the next 7 to 8 hours. Over a year, that number will accumulate to about 7,000.

The reason? Medical errors that include misread or otherwise misinterpreted handwritten prescriptions. Believe it. This means that doctors are being sloppy, pharmacies are making mistakes and people are getting dead.

Even more disturbing about this statistic is that 85 percent-plus of pharmacies are equipped to receive electronic prescriptions, yet only one-third of the nation’s prescribers use this system.

It seems appropriate, then, to draw some attention to this stupid and nonsensical tragedy during Health Literacy Month and to ask: What’s the deal?

Of course, this is the darkest side of the problems surrounding health literacy. And, as tragic as those 7,000 annual deaths are because of measly handwriting skills and a refusal to at least tiptoe into technology, it’s merely one symptom in a cluster-you-know-what of absurdities.

Consider the following:

  • 9 out of 10 adults have trouble understanding and using everyday health information.
  • Low literacy costs the U.S. health system an estimated $106 billion to $238 billion annually.
  • Health literacy is a stronger predictor of your health than your age, income, employment status, education level and race.

Those factoids come from the Institute of Medicine, which defines health literacy as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” For patients, that’s more than being able to read a prescription label. It means amassing, analyzing and interpreting health information that may be basic to some, but quite complex to others.

For providers, pharmaceutical companies, insurers and others who disseminate health information, it means communicating important—even life-saving—material that is neither engorged with CYA legalese nor “dumbed down,” but is plain, succinct, relevant and understandable. And, it also means individualizing information to specific audiences depending on their vulnerabilities (age, language, ethnicity, education, etc.).

The concept of health literacy isn’t new, but it was only this year that the Department of Health and Human Services announced its National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy—no doubt answering the call of our new health reform law to make health literacy a priority.

For those of us communicators who support all of the various healthcare professionals, this is our mandate, too. It means taking a closer look at how and where patients are getting information—your website, other health information sites and social networks, smart-phones, the kiosk in your hospital, or the caregiver who attends to them—and making sure you’re doing your part to make it clear and helpful.

Let’s all work toward clarity and use the technologies available to us—we sure don’t need people dying because of bad handwriting.

Daphne Swancutt is Director, Healthcare Strategy at IMRE, and blogs at IMRE Health HQ.

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