National Consumers League

Medicine: a widespread culprit in ER visits


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No one would argue that the point of taking medicine, both prescription and over-the-counter, is to stay healthy and prevent or treat illness. However, the opposite—in which patients become ill, or in extreme cases die, due to medicine related poisoning—is an all too common occurrence. According to a study published in the March issue of The American Journal of Emergency Medicine, upwards of 700,000 Americans are taken to the emergency room each year after ingesting (both illegal and legal) drugs, totaling $1.4 billion in ER charges alone. The problem of medicinal poisoning is widespread; the study is based on government data on 27 million visits to 970 emergency rooms in 27 states, yet some areas and age groups remain more at risk than others. The number of drug-related hospitalizations in rural areas is nearly three times that of more developed areas, and children younger than 6 experience more ER visits than any other age group. Health-care workers and patient advocates point to a number of reasons for the last decade’s increase in medicinal related injuries. One is the growing prevalence of prescription opioid painkillers such as methadone, oxycodone, and hydrocodone which are being increasingly prescribed. In 2007, the year covered by the reports, pain medication and antidepressants were responsible for 44 percent of drug-related ER visits. In the face of such unprecedented rates of injury, the issue of adherence, or the degree to which a patient correctly takes his or her medicine, is becoming an increasing hot topic in health and medicine safety circles. A recent New York Times article on adherence blamed Americans’ “alarmingly low” level of health literacy, or the ability to understand and use health information, as one of the most pervasive and under-recognized problems in medicine. The article referenced a 2006 study by the U.S. Department of Education that found that 90 million Americans can understand medical instructions only when written at a fifth-grade level or lower. To address this growing issue, NCL, with planning funds from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), is organizing a groundbreaking, national multi-media campaign to improve public health by raising consumer awareness of the importance of good medication adherence. The campaign involves a broad cross-section of public and private stakeholders. Click here for more information on the campaign and to learn how to get involved!