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Our View: Modernize to reduce medical errors

What's a good way to save thousands of Californians' lives as well as billions of their hard-earned dollars? Try modernizing the way prescriptions are handled.

California's Medications Errors Panel issued a report Wednesday listing 12 recommendations for bringing the exchange of prescription drugs into the 21st century. State lawmakers now are considering a bill to implement those suggestions.

There's certainly good reason to make the handling of prescriptions safer. Medication errors sicken or kill 150,000 Californians and cost $17 billion annually, the panel found. The problem only is likely to worsen in the years ahead as baby boomers entering retirement begin requiring more prescriptions.

Most of the illnesses and deaths occur because patients are confused about their prescriptions. They take the wrong dosages or mix different kinds of pills, resulting in dangerous interactions and side effects.

Most of the recommendations are simple enough. Doctors and pharmacies could electronically transmit prescriptions, which results in lower rates of errors than handwritten orders. Printing prescription bottle labels in the patients' primary language would go a long way in a state where new immigrants make up a sizeable portion of the population. Adding the purpose of the drug to the label would help consumers better keep track of what ailment the pills inside are for. Consumer education would ensure many patients better understand how to read a prescription label and to know better than to mix certain kinds of medications.

It is ironic that the very medicines intended to heal people result in illnesses and death and higher health care care costs for all. At a time when health insurance costs are soaring, the state must look at ways to reduce hospital visits, and cutting medication errors is a good place to make significant headway.

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