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Pharmacy inattention and mixed meds: a deadly combination

In 2016, the Chicago Tribune released stunning results of a test reporters conducted primarily in Illinois pharmacies. One by one, hiding the fact they worked for the newspaper, the reporters requested two prescriptions filled at once. Surprisingly, more than a few of the pharmacists dispensed the medication routinely and then went on to serve the next customers.

What those pharmacists missed was the deadly combination of drugs the reporters had requested. They had deliberately asked for prescriptions that should not be taken together. While some druggists did, in fact, catch the toxic mix and warn the reporters, the many who did not were cause for alarm.

Their crucial error could have cost lives. The Tribune calls pharmacists “the last line of defense” in the medical system, especially since doctors do not always know the other physicians a patient may be seeing or the prescriptions they may be taking. For this reason, responsibility falls heavily on that “last line of defense” to monitor the medications they dispense.

The Tribune suggested the failure of responsibility its reporters witnessed might have had to do with the demand for efficiency. Customers expect their meds to be ready right away, and supervisors want happy customers. Competition with other service providers may have also played a role, as pharmacists and their technicians consistently seek to meet consumers’ demands, hoping to keep business from going elsewhere.

When the Tribune reached out to the organizations they had tested, many responded with promises of change by vowing to “take significant steps to improve patient safety.” All voiced as much concern over the findings as the reporters had experienced. 

Given the severity of the complaints, however, what can patients do to protect themselves when they head to their local pharmacies to pick up newly prescribed medications? Harvard Medical School provides some suggestions:

  • Use the same pharmacy for every prescription since providers maintain records of all medications dispensed for patients
  • Know what the doctor has ordered and why
  • Discuss prescriptions with the pharmacist on duty
  • Learn how to take the medications and follow the directions carefully

Pharmacists can touch base with physicians if they have questions about why doctors ordered a particular combination of medications. Discussions like these can go a long way toward protecting patients’ health.

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