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Medication Errors: Widespread, Underreported Dangers to Patients

In 2007, actor Dennis Quaid's newborn twins were nearly killed by a preventable medical error at a hospital. The boy and girl were given an overdose of a blood thinner to treat an infection.

Reuters reports that Thomas and Zoe Quaid almost died after they were given 10,000 units of Heparin rather than the prescribed 10 units of Hep-Lock, made by the same pharmaceutical company, Baxter. Quaid says the company should have recalled the 10,000-unit vials because they were similar to the 10-unit vials and that the two had been mistaken for each other previously.

Baxter says an investigation showed that someone at the hospital had simply not read the labels on the vials - a nearly fatal mistake for the newborns.

Hearst Newspapers reports that Dr. Allen Vaida, executive vice president of the Institute of Safe Medication Practices in Pennsylvania, a non-profit research organization studying medication errors, says acknowledging and reporting the mistakes is critical to preventing errors.

"One of the most important things is to make sure we share information about and learn from errors that happen," Vaida said.

Studies show that children and infants are at the highest risk of medication errors because nurses must calculate the proper dosage based on body weight and other factors not as critical in older patients.

The National Coordinating Council for Medication Error Reporting and Prevention defines a medication error as a "preventable event that may cause or lead to inappropriate medication use or patient harm."

Vaida says the errors are widespread and underreported, partly because some doctors and nurses don't even realize a mistake has been made, or because they fear publicity and damage to their careers, or because they fear being held accountable for their negligence in a medical malpractice lawsuit.

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