How To Get Better Pharmacy Care

Being a patient in a hospital is a dangerous place to be because it puts you at risk of being harmed by a medication error. That’s because more doses of medicine and more powerful medicines are given to people who are sick enough to need hospital care.

No matter how much we try, we are all human, and mistakes will be made. Our best hope is to catch these medication errors before they get to the patient by training staff to be alert, building in safeguards that flag potential problems, and by clear communication between the pharmacy staff who fill each medication order and the nursing staff administering it to the patient.

There are two main systems hospitals use to provide medicines to patients: centralized and decentralized distribution systems. In a centralized system the pharmacy is in the basement and pharmacists work inside its walls. Nursing sends new medication orders down to pharmacy and receives them without ever seeing or talking to a pharmacist.
A decentralized system puts pharmacists on the floors or units, usually right next to nursing stations. Pharmacists and nurses work side-by-side to interpret orders that are sent along to the central pharmacy for filling.

In my 12 years as a hospital pharmacist I’ve worked in both decentralized and centralized pharmacy systems and there is a significant difference between them. In a centralized system, nursing and pharmacy have an adversarial relationship, where in a decentralized pharmacy system pharmacy and nursing respect and value each other. My observation is that in centralized pharmacy systems the only time nurses communicate with the pharmacy is by phone when things go wrong, like when they can’t find the next dose of their antibiotic or have run out of pain medicine. The nurse calls the pharmacy in frustration, complaining about how she doesn’t have the medicine and the pharmacy learns to dread getting called by nurses.

Decentralized pharmacies put pharmacists and nurses side-by-side, and the face-to-face contact fosters less blame and more cooperation. Pharmacy helps nurses find missing doses of medicines clarify orders and in general are seen as heroes instead of the problem.

The most striking difference between the two systems is in detecting and resolving potential medication errors. Nursing is the last link between a medication order and the patient. The nurse administering a medicine is the last opportunity to find a mistake or error before it gets to the patient. Let’s be honest here. Because we are human it’s not possible to completely eliminate medication errors. The best we can do is to recognize an error and correct things that aren’t right before they harm an innocent patient.

In a centralized system if a nurse notices something that “doesn’t seem quite right” they will tend to avoid calling the pharmacy, as the pharmacy already thinks they call too much and complain. Instead, they will let it go. In a decentralized system a nurse facing the same “not quite right” feeling will call over the pharmacist, saying, “Hey, could you take a look at this? What do you think?”

There’s a similar situation faced by older Americans when it comes to getting their prescriptions. Centralized pharmacy services are provided by mail-order pharmacies and decentralized services by local pharmacies.

Outside of a hospital, the last link in the chain of a medication error is YOU. Like hospital nurses in a decentralized pharmacy system, using a local pharmacy gives you the opportunity to develop a relationship with a pharmacist or pharmacists. When you see things that don’t make sense to you, you are more likely to ask the pharmacist for help than if you get your medicines through the mail.

Here are 5 tips on getting the safest pharmacy care:

1.    Look for non-mail order options in your benefit plan and choose local whenever you can.

2.     Keep a complete list of all of your medications, and share it with all of your providers, not just your doctors. Take it to your dentist, chiropractor, and each pharmacy that you use. Keep everyone in the loop avoids dangerous duplication or risky combinations of medicines.

3.    Establish a relationship with at least one pharmacist so that you feel comfortable asking them questions. This is an absolutely critical skill as our medications become more complex and more powerful and more dangerous.

4.    If you see something you don’t understand about the medicine please SPEAK UP. ASK! Mail-order pharmacies tend to discourage people questioning things. By not asking questions you are passing up an opportunity to discover a mistake before it gets to you.

5.    Insist on 90-day supplies from your doctor for your regular medicines. This limits the number of times a pharmacy is filling your prescriptions and reduces the possibility of an error,as you get only 4 or 5 refills a year instead of 11 or 12..

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