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Will Robots Reduce Hospital Medication Errors?

Hospital medication errors are a form of medical malpractice that happens every day in New York and across the country. Patients may receive the wrong dose or the wrong drug, or they may experience the harmful effects of drugs dangerously interacting with each other. To cut down on the human errors that can lead to these incidents, some hospitals are turning to technology.

For example, as The New York Daily News reports, St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx has become the latest in the country and the first in the New York City metropolitan area to invest in a robotic system to combat drug errors.

The machine is called the RIVA system. It is designed to handle tasks such as syringe filling, medication sanitization and ensuring that patients receive the right drug at the right dose.

Dr. Ruth Cassidy, vice president and chief pharmacy officer at the hospital, told the newspaper that there is no possibility of contamination or fatigue leading to an error. Thus, in her view, the machine essentially removes human mistakes from the equation altogether.

How Common Are Medication Errors?

According to a report from the Institute of Medicine, millions of patients are sickened each year by medication errors in hospitals. Another 7,000 patients are killed. Every day, there is an average of one medication error per hospital inpatient in the U.S.

These errors often happen because of mistakes such as:

  • Erroneously transcribing or reading prescriptions (for instance, a decimal point may be placed in the wrong spot or overlooked by the person filling the prescription)
  • Forgetting to check for potential drug interactions between a new drug and one the patient is already taking
  • Reaching for the wrong medication
  • Setting up an IV incorrectly
  • Rushing through a doctor’s orders.

Looking for Solutions for Medication Errors

An article published last year in Forbes Magazine detailed several possible solutions for preventing these tragic hospital errors. While it did not specifically mention RIVA, technology was prominently featured in the article.

For example, the article discussed computerized physician order entry (CPOE). This is a type of computer system that essentially double- and triple-checks all of the medication information for a patient.

The system contains lab results, clinical records, allergies and additional information about the patient. It checks this information against each medication order before sending it on to the pharmacy to be filled. It even checks dosage amounts for potential mistakes.

According to the article, one study indicated that using CPOE systems could reduce the occurrence of medication errors by as much as 85 percent.

When the federal government gave hospitals funding to switch to electronic medical records (EMRs), beginning in 2009, it also incentivized hospital investment in CPOE systems, the article states.

However, hospitals have been slow to act.  As of last year, Leapfrog, a nonprofit hospital watchdog, found only about one third of hospitals use CPOE systems, while only about 30 in the nation have robotic systems like RIVA.

In Reality, No System is Flawless

Even though technology-based solutions are a step in the right direction, they do not completely eliminate the possibility of medication errors occurring.

As the Forbes article points out, one analysis found that in about 50 percent of cases, CPOE systems have failed to identify problems. It seems that the system’s potential to eliminate errors is promising. However, when the technology is not maintained properly, it cannot work as expected.

Unfortunately, many hospitals lack the funding to maintain CPOE systems, and the culture of the hospital environment may simply be resistant to change.

As patients, it is our job to hold hospitals accountable for their errors and to help them prevent these mistakes in the first place. This is why you should always make it a point to ask about the medications you are being given by doctors and nurses, including asking about possible side effects, interactions and dosages.

If you have any concerns about your safety, never be afraid to speak up.

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