Patient safety, the latest fad?

Issue: BCMJ, vol. 48, No. 2, March 2006, Page 64 Editorials

Even the profession of medicine has its fads, trends, and catch phrases. The latest seems to be the concept of patient safety—often alluded to as if it were a newly discovered concept! We seem to be bombarded in both the medical and lay press with articles describing the hundreds of patients who die every year and the thousands who are harmed by adverse events in our medical system, particularly our hospitals. Great attention is given to adverse drug reactions, though I always find it difficult to tell from the statistics how many of these reactions are predictable (and thereby preventable) and how many result in truly adverse consequences for the patient involved. There is a lot of difference between nausea caused by erythromycin and anaphylaxis caused by penicillin being given to the wrong patient.

In all of the rhetoric surrounding this topic, I keep searching for concrete, practical solutions that the practising physician can implement in his or her daily routine. For example, the pharmacy at the hospital where I work sent around a newsletter with two very pertinent suggestions. The first was to stop using trailing zeros when writing a drug dosage. For example, writing “5 mg prednisone” is a lot safer than “5.0 mg prednisone.” If the period is not clear the dosage could easily be mistaken for 50 mg. Preceding zeros, on the other hand, are safer. For example, “0.6 mg digoxin” is safer than “.6 mg digoxin.” Their second suggestion was to avoid using QD, OD, or any other designation for once daily other than “daily.” Practical, cheap, and easily implemented.

Another way that the prescribing of medications could be made a lot safer would be to give physicians the ability to interact directly with the PharmaNet computer. Let me describe a scenario: I see a patient in the office with an acute exacerbation of COPD and prescribe a course of clarithromycin unaware (because the patient had forgotten to tell me and I forgot to ask about new medications) that the previous day the patient had been started on a statin by his cardiologist. The patient goes off to the pharmacy where the pharmacist discovers the potential drug interaction and for the next several hours the pharmacist and I play telephone tag, ultimately resulting in a different antibiotic being prescribed. The 2006 version: using the Internet I log onto the PharmaNet computer while the patient is with me in the office, prescribe the clarithromycin, am informed of the interaction with the statin, and change the antibiotic—which is then waiting for the patient by the time he gets to the pharmacy! Faster, simpler, and very much safer—and no one needs to read my writing.

The situation on busy hospital wards, of course, is more serious and complicated. Getting buy-in from health care workers about reporting and discussing medication errors will require a cultural shift away from pointing fingers at individuals to focusing on the system and encouraging all of us to report dangerous situations and to try to be creative with solutions. In a number of teaching hospitals, weekly safety huddles are becoming popular, providing a blame-free environment for trying to improve the system.

As everyone involved becomes more comfortable and trusting, ideas begin to emerge. Concerns regarding patient safety are not new and will never become passé. Checks and balances have existed in the system for many years. Where we have been slow is in using the power of modern technology to make our patients’ interactions with the medical system even safer.


Lindsay M. Lawson, MD. Patient safety, the latest fad?. BCMJ, Vol. 48, No. 2, March, 2006, Page(s) 64 - Editorials.

Above is the information needed to cite this article in your paper or presentation. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) recommends the following citation style, which is the now nearly universally accepted citation style for scientific papers:
Halpern SD, Ubel PA, Caplan AL, Marion DW, Palmer AM, Schiding JK, et al. Solid-organ transplantation in HIV-infected patients. N Engl J Med. 2002;347:284-7.

About the ICMJE and citation styles

The ICMJE is small group of editors of general medical journals who first met informally in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1978 to establish guidelines for the format of manuscripts submitted to their journals. The group became known as the Vancouver Group. Its requirements for manuscripts, including formats for bibliographic references developed by the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM), were first published in 1979. The Vancouver Group expanded and evolved into the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), which meets annually. The ICMJE created the Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals to help authors and editors create and distribute accurate, clear, easily accessible reports of biomedical studies.

An alternate version of ICMJE style is to additionally list the month an issue number, but since most journals use continuous pagination, the shorter form provides sufficient information to locate the reference. The NLM now lists all authors.

BCMJ standard citation style is a slight modification of the ICMJE/NLM style, as follows:

  • Only the first three authors are listed, followed by "et al."
  • There is no period after the journal name.
  • Page numbers are not abbreviated.

For more information on the ICMJE Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals, visit

BCMJ Guidelines for Authors

Leave a Reply