Unexpected Drugs Bring Seniors to ER

By Jed Bickman 12/02/11

Failures to administer and monitor drugs properly have a heavy human cost.

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Inadequate monitoring causes many visits.

Most drug-induced visits to emergency rooms by seniors aren't caused by addictive or dangerous meds like painkillers, but by more prosaic drugs like diabetes pills and blood thinners, a new study shows. Two thirds of all the hospitalizations in the study were the result of overdoses, but not the kind of ODs you’d expect: painkillers and other medications deemed “high-risk” were only implicated in 1.2% of cases. The study didn't cover hospital visits caused by drug abuse, withdrawal, or deliberate self-harm; it focused only on avoidable, unintentional hospitalizations. These typically occurred because meds were being administered improperly, or because doctors weren't adequately monitoring them. For example, blood thinners like Warfarin are effective at preventing strokes and have other benefits; but when doctors fail to monitor the dosage, it causes hemorrhaging. As life expectancy increases and the population ages, this problem will grow. The study found that 40% of seniors take between five and nine medications—and 18% were on at least ten drugs. Each one needs to be properly monitored, and interactions between drugs can cause a raft of unexpected harms. The report shows that millions of dollars could be saved by a campaign of preventative education, and the federal government is working with the study’s authors to produce such a program. 

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Jed Bickman is a journalist and copywriter living in the greater New York City area. He is the associate editor at The New Press. You can find him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.