SAN DIEGO -- Following minor surgery you're sent home with painkillers. You rest and take the medicine. Nothing could be simpler, yet this scenario is increasingly turning disastrous. David Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California at San Diego, pored over U.S. death certificates and discovered that the number of Americans who died because of a doctor's mistake or their own misunderstanding involving prescription drugs surged from 2,876 to 7,391 in the last decade.

What's behind the rise? With medical organizations keeping a-close eye on their bottom line, Phillips says, overburdened doctors and nurses are more likely to make errors in dosage or selection, and to leave patients to take drugs without adequate supervision.

The push to limit hospital stays is also playing a role. From 1983 to 1993 the nation witnessed a 75 percent jump in outpatient procedures; that translates to hundreds of thousands of patients recuperating at home, many still feeling the effects of anesthesia. When Phillips checked to see how many prescription drug deaths were related to outpatient care, he found the total had risen eightfold, from 172 to 1,459.

"This study proves there's a nationwide problem," says Phillips, "and it's getting worse." He thinks patients must take the initiative to protect themselves.

When you get a prescription, tell your doctor and pharmacist what other drugs you're taking, and double-check the instructions. Also, find out if you should be on the alert for any symptoms or dangerous side effects.


Vital Signs by Kate Lee, Michael Mason, Evelyn Strauss, and Patrick Tucker.

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