60-Second Mind

A study shows prescription OD accidents are on the rise

A study published in Archives of Internal Medicine shows that fatal medicinal mistakes at home rose substantially in two decades. Christie Nicholson reports

[Below is the original script. But a few changes may have been made during the recording of this audio podcast.]

Actor Heath Ledger's untimely death on January 22, 2008, shocked us—and we are eerily reminded of it as we watch him twitch and quiver as the fey Joker in the current Batman movie, The Dark Knight. Perhaps Ledger's death, due to an accidental prescription overdose, hit the world as tragic because most of us can imagine ourselves falling prey to a similar accident.

A longitudinal study in July 28 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine examines nearly 200,000 U.S. deaths due to medication errors from 1983 to 2004. The researchers specifically compared medicinal mix-ups at home versus those in a clinical setting.

Apparently, home deaths due to taking meds with alcohol and/or street drugs shot up more than 3,000 percent in those two decades. Whereas, fatal errors out of home, and unrelated to any additional alcohol, only rose five percent. Accidental errors at home that didn't include any alcohol or street drugs rose pretty substantially—more than 560 percent.

To be sure, people may be taking more prescriptive meds than in 1980s and: "The decadeslong shift in the location of medication consumption from clinical to domestic settings," say the researchers, "is linked to a dramatic increase in fatal medication errors."

So is this hazard an acceptable by-product of the convenience and options of modern life? Or is it a problem that may worsen as more and more meds become available to homebound patients?

-- Christie Nicholson

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