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New Law Targets Medication Errors by Pharmacies

Posted on August 14, 2008

Last May the Florida Legislature passed the Pharmacy Technician Act.  

It is a significant piece of legislation that should keep us all safer from the medication errors made by pharmacy technicians. Florida Governor Charlie Crist signed SB 1360 into law in July 2008.

Senate Bill 1360 brings some justice to the Hippely family. Back in the summer of 2002, Beth Hippely of Lakeland, Florida was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. She was taking chemotherapy and the blood thinner, Warfarin, also known as Coumadin.

The pharmacy tech at Walgreens gave her a refill order at ten times the dose for Warfarin. Three weeks on the medication and Beth suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage. She went into a coma after suffering brain damage and then was put on life support.

Amazingly, she did not die then, but soon the cancer returned and she died in January 2007.  A lawsuit in Polk County on behalf of the family against Walgreens for negligence and wrongful death resulted in a $25.8 million award for damages.

The new Pharmacy Technician Act should help prevent these kinds of pharmaceutical errors by inexperienced and unsupervised technicians.   

It requires pharmacy technicians to register with the Florida Board of Pharmacy and to work directly under the supervision of a pharmacist. The tech must be at least 17 years old and they are required to complete 20 hours of continuing education in pharmaceutical procedures prior to a biennial renewal of their registration.  It will be against Florida law for anyone who is not registered as a pharmacy technician to perform that job.

With medication errors commonplace, the Pharmacy Technician Act is long overdue.

Prescription errors take many forms. Not only can a tech or a pharmacist give you the wrong dosage of medication but errors are sometimes made when drugs have a similar name; when someone does not ask you about you allergies or whether you are taking other medications; or maybe you are given incorrect information on how and when to take a medication.

That’;s what happened to Terry Paul Smith.

The 46-year old roofing contractor went to a Jacksonville Walgreens in the summer of 2001 to get a prescription filled for methadone for the pain in his legs and back after other painkillers left him drowsy.

Filling his prescription was a 22-year-old part time tech who had just failed a national certification exam that would have given her an extra 50-cents an hour. 

She typed up a prescription label with an “as needed” dosage instruction. Within 36 hours he took 22 pills and Smith was found dead, curled up on the shower floor from methadone toxicity.  His widow settled a lawsuit with Walgreens for an undisclosed sum.

How does this happen?  Big pharmacy chains cut their costs to increase profitability. Keeping the cost of labor down is one way to keep profitable. Because a pharmacist makes an adult living wage, it makes sense to staff a pharmacy with as many technicians as you can.     

But it’;s about more than profits.   Terry Paul Smith and Beth Hippely lost their lives from preventable mistakes. 

Unfortunately the new law will be phased in over the next few years.

In the meantime, keep reading your prescription directions and make sure they reflect what you were told by your physician. 

While prescription errors are rare, and Walgreens says it has improved its accountability, if you feel you have received an prescription in error you may want to consult with an attorney to review your rights.