As more drugs become available to treat more conditions in more Americans, the number of mistakes related to taking both prescription and over-the-counter medications has inexorably risen. From 1.09 serious medication errors per 100,000 Americans in 2000, the rate had risen to 2.28 by 2012.
The U.S. National Poison Data System logs about 1.5 million medication errors annually through calls to the nation’s 55 poison control centers. But that number may be an underestimate of the real total because not every medication error is reported to the poison centers. At the same time, it’s difficult to determine if the errors are happening more frequently or just being reported more often.
In most cases, the errors were the result of taking the wrong medicine or the wrong dosage, or mistakenly taking the medication twice.
About 50,000 Americans die every year from drug poisoning, not all from medication errors, although the numbers of non-medication errors leading to deaths is comparatively small. For example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 8,000 Americans are bitten by poisonous snakes every year, but that only about five will die. About 80 people a year die from bee, wasp and hornet stings, while homicides involving poison killed at least 100 Americans in 2015.
According to a report last month from CBS News, two-thirds of deaths in the study involved heart medicines and painkillers combined. Heart medication errors accounted for more than 20% of the errors, while hormone therapy drugs such as insulin accounted for 11%. Painkillers were involved in 12% of poisonings, and roughly 80% of painkiller mistakes involved products with acetaminophen or an opioid drug.
Drug poisoning probably killed 58,000 Americans in 2016, most from accidental overdoses of illegal drugs. That’s more than the half again as many as the 38,000 who died in motor vehicle crashes.