How many patients are killed by their cures?
By Michael Day ADVERSE reactions to drugs may be one of the leading causes of death in Western countries, warn doctors who have studied the problem. They say that health authorities need to make the issue a higher priority and investigate new ways to tackle the problem. The alarm was sounded in April by a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association (vol 279, p 1200). This suggested that 0.32 per cent of people admitted to American hospitals die from adverse drug reactions, including unexpected interactions between different drugs (see “What the doctor ordered”) and accidental overdoses due to errors by hospital staff. Patients in other countries could also be at risk. No one knows the scale of the problem in Britain, says Maureen Dalziel, director of public health at the North Thames branch of the National Health Service Executive. She says that there could be 70 000 deaths and cases of serious disability in England each year—putting adverse drug reactions behind only heart attacks and stroke as a cause of death. With Charles Vincent of University College London and Eric Thomas of the University of Texas at Houston, Dalziel has planned a pilot study of 2000 patient records in two London hospitals, which could begin as early as next month. “We knew it had to be investigated,” she says. However, the team has yet to secure the £160 000 it needs to carry out the study. Thomas says that the US government has also been slow to react. “The federal response so far has been limited, and I think that’s because we’re only starting to realise the size of the problem.” However, the American Medical Association has set up a National Patient Safety Foundation,