Opioid shortage at hospitals increases risk of medical errors

A shortage of pain medications in U.S. hospitals means that medication errors are likely to increase.

The opioid crisis is being felt across the nation and hospitals have been at the forefront of the epidemic in multiple ways. Not only are they dealing with a staggering number of overdoses, they are now contending with a severe shortage of pain medications, according to PBS Newshour. That shortage means that patients who need these medications are often being given less potent alternatives. Even more worrisome, the shortage is likely to lead to medication errors as nurses and hospital staff contend with having to use second-choice medications.

Opioid crisis hits hospitals

Hospitals are witnessing a shortage of pain medications primarily due to the opioid crisis. As Kaiser Health News reports, regulations concerning the manufacture of opioids have been tightened in recent years, which has had the side effect of a slowdown in opioid drug production. Furthermore, Pfizer, which manufactures 60 percent of all injectable opioids, recently had to halt production of many of its drugs due to a problem with a third-party manufacturer.

Together, these two issues have led to a severe shortage of pain medications at healthcare facilities across the U.S. The shortage means that healthcare facilities' ability to manage patients' pain has become compromised, with many healthcare providers resorting to alternative or less potent drugs. Hospices in some states have already said they have run out of certain opioid products and are having difficulty replenishing their supplies. A number of elective surgeries have also been postponed due to the shortage.

Medical errors more likely

Earlier this year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration warned that the drug shortages could be life-threatening and that they increase the risk for medical errors. Forcing healthcare facilities to use alternative drugs especially increases the chances of a mistake happening. Many hospitals routinely use a certain pain medication for certain ailments and have established protocols and procedures around that medication's use. When an alternative medication needs to be used, then new procedures, such as measuring out new dosages or understanding how the alternative drug will react to other drugs, need to be learned. Those extra steps increase the chance of a mistake happening.

Some errors attributable to the shortage have already been recorded. In one case, for example, a patient was given a larger-than-recommended dose of sufentanil after the hospital ran out of its first-choice drug, fentanyl. Sufentanil is up to 10 times more potent than fentanyl. In another instance, a hospital ran out of its smaller-dose vials of morphine. When a larger vial was used instead, one patient was mistakenly given five times the appropriate dosage.

Help for medical malpractice victims

For those who may have been harmed by a medical provider's alleged negligence, it is important to reach out to a medical malpractice attorney right away. Medical malpractice claims can be exceedingly complex, but with an experienced attorney on one's side claimants will have the representation they need to navigate the process effectively.