If you’ve ever tried to read the handwritten notes on your doctor’s prescription, chances are you will probably believe this new report:

More than 1.5 million Americans are injured each year due to drug errors by their health care providers. On average, each hospitalized patient is subject to at least one medication error per day!

According to this report by the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, a preventable drug error in a hospital can add as much as $5,800 to the bill. Assuming 400,000 such errors occur each year, the report concluded that these mistakes amount to a $3.5 billion waste of money.

The report did not assess the number of deaths attributable to drug errors. An older report put the estimate at 7,000 per year.


While bad handwriting may be the most basic cause of these problems – only six percent of hospital prescriptions are written electronically and only three percent of hospitals maintain electronic patient records – the sheer volume and complexity of today’s medications compound the problem.

More than 10,000 prescription drugs are on the market as well as 300,000 over-the-counter products. Usage and dosage instructions vary with each patient’s age, weight and personal risk factors. Also, many patients take more than one medication – indeed, four out of five American adults take at least one daily medication or dietary supplement and almost a third take at least five. Accounting for possible adverse interactions is a difficult but necessary task.

Moreover, many drugs have similar names and dosages may be in milligrams or micrograms. Add to that bad handwriting and mix-ups are all but certain.

“Aside from the harm caused to many unsuspecting patients, these errors unnecessarily drive up health care costs,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “This report makes recommendations for systemic change – such as requiring electronic prescribing by the end of the decade. What is important for Laborers and their families is recognizing that these problems exist. Maintain a record of the medications and supplements that you take and make sure your health care provider is informed when he or she orders medication. Then, make sure you know what the prescription says and check it for accuracy after it is filled. As in so many other areas of health care, our best protection is our own education and awareness.”