Washington — Pill-sorting robots, computerized syringes, and hand-held devices warning of potentially missed doses could be put in the hands of doctors, hospitals and their patients under legislation to curb medication mistakes.
Medication errors missed dosages, double dosages, and dangerous mixes are thought to kill or injure 777,000 people each year.
Some senators are calling for nearly $1 billion to help hospitals and technology companies invest in devices to avoid more deaths and injuries. A demonstration of such gadgets was held Thursday at a hearing for the Senate Special Committee on Aging.
Peter Klein, a pharmacist from Normal, Ill., showed off a product that can help patients who have trouble reading the labels on their pill bottles.
He waved a hand-held computer device over a pill bottle. A computer chip embedded in the bottle's special barcode then fed the doctor's instructions to the hand-held device.
Information from the computer chip drug type, dosage, doctor's name and phone number was decoded and converted into speech.
"Warning, it is important to finish all of the medication," the computer device said in a stern monotone.
Klein said it could cost $200 to make the hand-held device.
"New technologies like these help prevent us from short-circuiting our seniors," said Sen. John Breaux, D-La.
Other products demonstrated during the hearing included Robot-Rx, a robotic pharmacist from the Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center.
The machine reads barcodes on individually packaged pills, medicine vials and other products and then sorts them into carts for staffers who deliver them to the appropriate patient.
Neil Reed, who heads the community hospital's pharmacy department, said Robot-Rx can dispense thousands of medicines a day, turning 8 hours of work into 90 minutes. It also has a 100 percent accuracy rate.
Yet such life-saving technology is too expensive for hospitals, and they need help buying them, said Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., one of the sponsors of the billion-dollar plan to help health providers with technology grants.
Roughly $97 million in grants would be awarded annually for 10 years if the plan makes it through Congress.
"Tragedies involving medication errors are compounded by the fact that they are preventable," Graham said.
Last month, the Health and Human Services Department reported that medication errors in the nation's hospitals can be cut by more than two-thirds if doctors enter the prescriptions into a computer rather than scribbling them on paper.
The report also said that computers could fight a host of problems like poor handwriting and lost paper prescriptions.
Demonstrators assured the panel that a patient's privacy would still be protected and guarded.