Medication mistakes on the homefront

By Carrie Johnson Weimar • Published: October 21st, 2008
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Millions mourned when movie star Heath Ledger died from a lethal combination of painkillers, anti-anxiety medication and sleep aids in January. As startling as it was, the young actor’s death appears to be part of a larger national trend. In fact, the number of home deaths from medication mistakes has skyrocketed over the past two decades, a new study has found.

The rise is being blamed on the increasing home use of prescription painkillers and other potent drugs that were primarily dispensed strictly at hospitals.

According to the study, the number of deaths from medication mistakes at home soared from eleven-hundred-thirty two in 1983 to twelve thousand, four-hundred twenty-six in 2004. Adjusted for changes in population, that’s a seven-hundred percent increase.

The increase comes at a time when doctors have changed their views about painkillers. Successful pain management is now viewed as a key to healing. Patients are also more likely to be prescribed several different drugs in addition to painkillers, such as anti-anxiety medication and sleeping pills.

Abuse of prescription drugs undoubtedly plays a role, but researchers aren’t sure how significant it is. Many of the deaths came from people who mixed street drugs or alcohol with prescription medicine.

Researchers largely blame the lax attitude many have toward prescription drugs these days. Many people share prescriptions, oblivious to the harmful effect the drugs may have.

One possible solution? More education. Some researchers are already suggesting requiring pharmacists to teach patients about dangerous drugs, and having insurers foot the bill.