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Overdose of Chemotherapy Kills Cancer Patient

Sep 1, 2004 | www.cbs5.com

Investigators are looking into the death of a cancer patient at a Peninsula hospital.

San Mateo Medical Center says a 41-year-old man died after he received 10 times his prescribed dose of chemotherapy. The doctor has prescribed 50 units of a chemotherapy drug, but the patient got 500, and died of a drug overdose while being treated at the county-owned medical center.

"The medication order was illegible and the nurse just couldn't read it," said San Mateo County Supervisor Mark Church.

CBS 5 HealthWatch reporter Dr. Kim Mulvihill says miscommunication happens far too often in hospitals around the country.

"Doctors have notoriously bad handwriting. I know I do," said Mulvihill.

Institute of Medicine says there are more than one million serious medical errors in hospitals every year. Those errors result in more than 7000 annual deaths that are mostly preventable and drive up health care costs by $2 billion.

San Mateo Hospital representatives would not appear on camera or allow our camera on hospital grounds, but a spokesman admitted the mistake, saying, "This is tragic. We accept full responsibility. It was a series of system and human errors."

County supervisors asked the state to investigate, and will also appoint an outside consultant to look into the cause of the mistake. Many other hospitals have already found a potential solution to botched handwritten orders.

"There are things we can do, and one big one that everyone is interested in is a computer-based pharmacy order system, where you actually go to a computer and enter and check off the boxes that way," said Mulvihill. "That is something that the Institute of Medicine has estimated would reduce 60% of preventable adverse drug interactions.

New federal medical privacy laws prevent the release of any information that could identify the patient who died at San Mateo Hospital. County officials say they've been talking to the patient's family and so far have not heard of any lawsuit. But if the family does sue, they may not be eligible for very much money, as the hospital says the patient was already terminally ill.

"In a wrongful death suit, the damages are in part based on the life expectancy of the decedent. So, yes, it will considerably cause a reduction in any damages that might be ordered at a later date," said Church.

County officials say this is the first accidental death they're aware of at the medical center.


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