How the opioid crisis is leading to medication errors in hospitals

The opioid crisis has led to a shortage of pain medication in hospitals, increasing the risk of medical errors.

The opioid crisis has devastated communities across the country, but one side of the problem that has not been much discussed is the effect it is having on patient care at hospitals and other healthcare facilities. As PBS Newshour reports, hospitals are facing a dire shortage of pain medications as new regulations meant to stem the flow of opioids has meant that manufacturing of these drugs has slowed significantly. Safety experts warn that hospitals have been forced to find alternative medications in order to protect their diminishing supply of pain medications, but those alternatives are leading to an increased risk of medication errors and patient harm.

Hospitals face opioid shortage

Given that opioid addiction has become a national crisis, it can be hard to believe that for hospitals the problem they are facing is not that there are too many opioid drugs available, but too few. But indeed that is the case. New regulatory measures that were designed to stem the production of opioid drugs, and thus make them harder for those with addiction problems to get, have had the unintended effect of seeing hospitals' stockpiles of such drugs quickly diminish. Pfizer, the leading manufacturer of injectable opioids, also halted production on some of its medicines last year over a problem with an unspecified third-party manufacturer and it does not expect to return to full capacity until 2019.

As a result, hospitals are finding it more difficult to administer pain medication to the patients who actually need them. Hospices in Florida, Maryland, and Hawaii have already reported running out of some opioid drugs. As Kaiser Health News reports, the American Society of Anesthesiologists says that some elective surgeries have been postponed because of a lack of pain medication.

Increased risk of medication errors

What is especially alarming is that many healthcare providers have been forced to find alternative medications in order to protect their dwindling supply of opioid drugs. Seeking alternatives is more likely to lead to dangerous medication errors.

For example, in one case a patient received five times the recommended amount of morphine because the hospital's smaller-dose vial was out of stock. In another instance, the healthcare provider was facing a shortage of fentanyl and so opted for sufentanil, an alternative medication which is 10 times stronger. By mistake, however, the patient was given too much sufentanil. In other cases, patients are being given weaker drugs than they would otherwise receive to treat their pain.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration warned earlier this year that the shortage of pain medication increases the chances of medical errors occurring and could be "potentially life threatening."

Help for patients

For those who may have been harmed by a medical error, it is important to reach out to a medical malpractice attorney today. Medical malpractice claims are notoriously complex, which is why patients need an advocate on their side who understands how such claims typically work. An attorney can advise clients about what claims they are able to pursue and can represent them throughout the claims process.