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Drug Mix-Ups Are On the Rise

Jul 24, 2005 | Cape Cod Times When Kathy Lynch picks up a prescription, she carefully looks at the label to make sure it's hers. She also checks the pills dispensed to make sure they match what she's supposed to be getting.

She's not taking any chances, and she's not alone.

Customers are being more vigilant about checking their medications and asking questions in the wake of much-publicized prescription mix-ups.

Locally, a woman called Sandwich police last Sunday when she received the wrong medication from a pharmacist who was noticeably drunk.

The number of reported pharmacy complaints is up dramatically this year. There have been 84 so far, up from 64 for the entire year in 2003.

Three of the complaints are against CVS stores in Hyannis, Centerville and Marstons Mills and all concern errors filling prescriptions, according to Jean Pontikas, director of the state licensing board. There are no other complaints pending against pharmacies on Cape Cod.

To put the overall number of complaints in perspective, more than 80 million prescriptions were filled in Massachusetts last year.

''Pharmacists are expected to be 100 percent right, 100 percent of the time and that's a lot to ask of someone,'' says Vinny Duarte, owner of Adams Pharmacy, an independent drugstore in Provincetown. ''Someone once told me, 'Doctors bury their mistakes, pharmacists pay for theirs.'''

Michael DeAngelis, a spokesman for CVS, says the chain's error rate is actually down, even if it's profile is up because of recent television reports highlighting mistakes.

''I should point out 40 million prescriptions were filled by CVS in Massachusetts last year,'' he says. The Rhode Island-based chain, with dozens of stores across the Cape, is cooperating with the state-probe. The chain invests millions in pharmacy technology to cut down on potential mistakes.

''No process is completely immune from human errors,'' DeAngelis said.

New regulations

CVS is taking the complaints seriously and says there is no evidence that consumer confidence is shaken.

''We've been in contact with our customer service department and they've seen no spike in calls from people concerned,'' DeAngelis says.

''Pharmacists do an excellent job on a day-to-day basis,'' says Carmelo Cinquonce, executive vice president for the Massachusetts Pharmacies Association. ''Pharmacists fill 83 million prescriptions on a yearly basis in Massachusetts.''

But he says there's no question recent media attention could damage consumer trust.

Duarte says it's important for consumers to be educated on what it is they're taking and for what reason. Too often, customers don't know. He says people who take multiple medications should write them on an index card and keep them in a wallet or pocketbook, especially if they're headed on vacation.

At chain pharmacies, which now dominate the landscape, the chance of errors is magnified by the ''tremendous volume,'' Duarte says.

Another matter of concern is a shortage of pharmacists. It's not a severe problem in Massachusetts, according to Cinquonce, but in some parts of the country - most notably North Carolina - pharmacies have had to shut down.

Prescription errors have led to new regulations that require all pharmacies to create a continuing quality improvement program by December, Pontikas says. Those regulations will require pharmacists to document errors, do an internal investigation and propose ways to fix the problem. The state will conduct an independent probe.

The state board inspects pharmacies if it receives a complaint, but also does surprise visits, Pontikas says. With new regulations going into effect, the state will be doing even more on-site visits.

''The system is a safe one,'' she says.

A matter of trust

Jean Sears, director of the Brewster Council on Aging, says seniors need to be able to trust pharmacists. She knows of one senior who takes 17 medications, and he can't possibly keep track of them all.

''These people rely on pharmacists to tell them they've been given the right thing,'' Sears says. ''They can't figure these things out.''

Cinquonce says the pharmacist is there to help, no matter how busy he or she looks.

''Consumers need to establish a relationship with a pharmacist,'' he says. ''They should ask questions and know what the drug is for and what the side effects are.''

Sedell's customer Sean Cavanaugh says he suffered a prescription mix-up at another pharmacy.

He was able to deal with the mistake on his own. He says he likes using Sedell's and will continue in the future, despite last week's incident.

''They've dealt with the issue,'' he said. ''It could happen anywhere.''

The pharmacist, Frederick C. Beal, 51, of Lakeville, was taken into protective custody after he blew a 0.18 on a portable Breathalyzer machine twice the legal limit for someone driving a car. He was slurring his words and was unsteady on his feet when police arrived. He was fired by Sedell's and surrendered his license to issue prescriptions on Monday.

''I thank the customer because if that customer had left and he remained on the bench something tragic could have happened,'' says Sandy Sedell, owner of Sedell's Pharmacy, which has three other stores off-Cape.

Lynch, for one, says she plans to continue taking matters into her own hands in the wake of the Sedell's incident and other pharmacy problems.

''It's going to make me look at the pills and look at the labels to make sure they're for the right person and they're the right pills,'' she said.

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