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Why and how pharmacy errors may occur

There's a pivotal scene in the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" where the pharmacist, Mr. Gower -- who is insane with grief after learning that his son has died from influenza and who has gotten drunk as a result -- almost poisons a young customer's medicine with cyanide. Fortunately, an adolescent George Bailey's timely intervention averts this tragedy.

But in the real world, all too many pharmacy errors slip through the cracks and adversely affect patients. For some, these consequences can be permanent, even fatal. Let's examine how this can happen -- and how to avoid it happening to you.

Busy pharmacies may be at risk

While there are still some small, independent pharmacies in and around Chicago, the trend today for many people is to use large chain pharmacies where a single shift can see hundreds of customers dropping off and picking up prescriptions. Pharmacists and their assistants may be under enormous pressure to meet quotas and fill prescriptions as quickly as possible. This trend can increase the risk of medication errors occurring.

Influx of generics another risk

Before there were generic drugs on the market, it was much simpler for patients to recognize the unique shape, color and size of their medications. For instance, for decades, a patient who was prescribed 10 mg valium knew that their pills would be small, round and baby-blue tablets with a distinctive "V" cut into the center.

Once generic drugs came on the scene, the distinctive colors and markings of drugs changed and became much less recognizable to the patients who were prescribed them. This, too, can lead to more dosage errors and other mistakes.

Pharmacies seeking higher profit margins may abruptly switch drug suppliers, causing their customers to receive differently colored or shaped pills from month to month. This can make the patients less likely to question unfamiliar medications because they are so used to the changing appearances of their medications.

Patient complacency a further risk

Of course, you should have faith in your doctor and pharmacist to do the right thing and prescribe and fill the medicines you need to be well. But, patients should never be so trusting that they become complacent about their medications.

If your pills look markedly different than what you are used to, or if you begin to experience unusual side effects, speak up. Bring your concerns to the prescribing physician or the pharmacist who filled your prescription. While these professionals bear the ultimate liability for any medication errors that occur, patients must also remain proactive. After all, the life you save may be your own.

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