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Failure to Recall Correct Prescription Drug Name Can Mean Critical Problems

Dec 2, 2013

Countless people are treating illnesses, conditions and diseases with drugs prescribed by doctors. But sometimes a mistake can happen, causing a patient to inadvertently take the wrong drug, a problem that can assume critical ramifications, such as injuries or death.

At least one healthcare professional believes that due to the vast number of drugs on the U.S. market, including both generics and brand names, it can get confusing for some doctors to recall the specific drug they need to prescribe. Then, too, there is the problem of different drugs that have very similar-sounding names. In high-pressure medical situations, this can become a critical issue, notes a New York Times editorial by nurse Theresa Brown.

Medications typically are introduced with a brand name, which remains patent protected for 20 years, meaning the patent holder is the sole manufacturer and distributor. Then the drugs go generic (the articles cites the example of Tylenol and acetaminophen). The companies that introduce the branded drugs keep the brand name, however, because they want to continue to capitalize on the brand’s equity which likely has been built via advertising and marketing campaigns that took place during the window of exclusivity. Also, the editorial notes that people tend to trust brand names more than the generic equals, even if there is no discernible difference.

Brown recalls one moment in which she quickly needed the name of a generic prescription drug but could not remember it. She eventually had to call a pharmacy to ask for the name in order to expedite delivery of the drug to her patient, who had been shaking uncontrollably prior to receiving the treatment.

One solution she posits is the use of a suffix. “All drugs now being sold could use either their brand name or the generic name,” Brown writes. “That name, and the manufacture of that medication, would be patent-protected for 20 years. Thereafter, any other producer of that drug would append it with a ‘-G,’ indicating that it is a generic formulation.” Acetaminophen, for example, would become Acetaminophen-G in its generic format. Combination drugs—she cites the brand name inhaler Duoneb as an example—might have to use generic names (albuterol and ipratropium) to avoid confusion, however.

She believes the names of drugs cause problems often—and it's because names are too similar and too abundant. Also, the names of branded drugs typically vary greatly from the generic. A recent test of Australian nurses found that they knew only about 29 percent of the generic names of popular brand name drugs, according to the editorial.

"To make things even more confusing, we have recently seen a proliferation of lookalike, sound-alike meds. For example: Zantac is used to treat heartburn, while Xanax is an anti-anxiety medication," she writes.

The problems caused by confusing drug names affect thousands of patients every year. In fact, the Institute for Safe Medication Practices publishes a list of commonly confused drug names. As of its latest publication in June 2011, there are eight full pages of such drug names.

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