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Dennis Quaid, Health Activist

Actor Dennis Quaid takes on medical errors – and life with twins.

Reducing Medical Errors

Safety experts most often mention two approaches to reducing medical errors: bar coding systems and computerized physician-order entry systems. Put simply, bar coding involves a health care worker going through a series of checks before giving a patient a drug -- scanning his own bar-coded badge, the patient’s bar-coded wristband, and the medication bar code, then pulling up the patient’s computerized medical record to be sure it’s the right drug, right dose, and correct time to give it. If there is a conflict, the computer sends an error message.

Only about 13% of the nation’s hospitals have a fully implemented bar code medication administration technology, according to  the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, but more are moving toward it.

Cedars-Sinai has begun implementing a “hospital-wide clinical information system, which will include bar coding and other features to even further improve our quality and patient safety,’’ says Richard Elbaum, a hospital spokesperson, with the bar coding to be initiated in the first patient-care units of the hospital by mid-2009.

Computerized physician-order entry involves a doctor inputting the order on a computer and replaces handwritten orders, which are often misinterpreted, experts say.

Dennis and Kimberly flew to Texas in July to tour Children’s Medical Center Dallas, which is launching a new bar coding system. The couple personally observed the system of built-in checks as they followed the process of ordering a drug through administering it to a patient, Quaid tells WebMD.

“The nurses there told me they resisted it at first. But now, they say they wouldn’t want to give a medication to a patient without using the new system.” Besides the general resistance many people have to new technology, some nurses cite the extra time needed to scan medications but then see that the added effort pays off in reduced risk of error.

Medical Errors Cases

At the congressional hearing in May, Quaid described his own family’s experience with medical mistakes and stressed the importance of preserving a consumer’s right to legal redress if he or she is subject to a serious medication error.

Experts view an upcoming case, Wyeth v. Levine, to be heard this fall by the U.S. Supreme Court, as a test of whether pre-emption applies to drug manufacturers. The case was brought by a patient who had to have her arm amputated after the use of an injected anti-nausea drug made by Wyeth allegedly led to gangrene.

Quaid is as passionate about this subject as he is about halting medical errors. “This pre-emption issue, if allowed to go through, will make all of us uninformed and uncompensated lab rats,” he insists.

Those who favor pre-emption say the possibilities of lawsuits after a drug has been approved stifle innovation and doubt lay juries can capably decide about product safety. Further, according to a statement released by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, federal pre-emption “will not deny patients their day in court. State judges and juries may still levy damages against manufacturers that fail to comply with FDA standards.” Pre-emption is not about blanket immunity for pharmaceutical companies, the organization says.

The Quaids have filed a lawsuit against Baxter International, Inc., the heparin manufacturer. The suit asks for an unspecified financial amount as a result of the alleged injuries they have suffered, according to Erin M. Gardiner, a spokesperson for Baxter in Deerfield, Ill. Baxter has requested dismissal of the Quaid lawsuit on a number of grounds, including pre-emption.

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