The Use of Abbreviations in Health Care – Health System Example

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"The Use of Abbreviations in Health Care" is a good example of a paper on the health system. Abbreviations are the short forms used to denote a  word or a  sentence. In the medical world, abbreviations are used by physicians to describe the medicine or its dosage on the prescription. However, because of the lack of a  standardized format regarding its use, it is causing a  life-threatening problem for the patients. Interpretation of an abbreviation can be done differently by different people if there is no standardized procedure applied to it.

A  survey was conducted to find out how one word can be interpreted differently by different pharmacists. The word that was used for the survey was ‘ daily’ , which is a  very common word used to prescribe the dosage. It was found that  17  different pharmacists expressed different abbreviations for that word throughout the  United  States(Cohen  154). If this is a  case with a  simple word like  ‘ daily’ , one can imagine the potential havoc the abbreviation interpretation error can play while interpreting the names of the medicines. The disappointing thing regarding the abbreviation errors is that it does not remain limited to the interpretation of the names of the medicine but also affects the amount of the dosage of the medicine.

For e. g. the interpretation error of the abbreviation  ‘ U’   can lead to a  patient getting ten times more of the dosage than intended. As  ‘ U’   means zero, the prescription reading  10 U  insulin can be misinterpreted as  100  insulin. In the same way, abbreviation  ‘ QD’   used for indicating a  daily dosage can be read as  QID  meaning four times a  day or  ‘ OD’   which means every other day( Fred   328).

The changes these abbreviation errors cause to the dosage can be fatal to the patient’ s life. In one case, a  pregnant woman with thyroid problem was given a  powerful medicine for cancer. Her doctor used   ‘ PTU’   as the abbreviation for medicine propylthiouracil. The pharmacist misinterpreted the abbreviation and thought it is for  Purinethol which is a  powerful cancer medicine ( Dangerous  Mix-ups). Due to this error, the woman lost her baby as she suffered from infections and vaginal bleeding after taking that medicine for  5  weeks.

A  life was lost because of the abbreviation error. The chances of errors reduce when a  word is written in full as the pharmacist will not misread a  complete word. So, for the safety of the patients,     eliminating abbreviations is extremely important. To eliminate the abbreviation errors in medical prescription, written policy regarding its use and format is essential. The only thing the policy should state is to completely ban the use of abbreviations for names of the medicines. There are many reasons for the need for such a policy.

Firstly, standardizing the abbreviations for the names of the medicine is extremely difficult as there are hundreds of medicines coming to the market every year. Secondly, even after warning for more than  25  years against the use of potentially threatening abbreviations, the doctors were still found using it to save time and effort( Medication errors related. .). So standardizing the abbreviations can solve a  problem but not completely. Thirdly, even if the abbreviation is written in correct and legible form, the pharmacist can misinterpret the meaning of it, as it happened in the case of the pregnant woman mentioned above.                             The only area where the abbreviations should be allowed is for the description of the amount of usage and that too, only when it is in a  printed form.

Illegible handwriting can lead to misinterpretation. A  universally standardized list of these abbreviations should be crated and only those doctors and pharmacists who are certified by the association who create a  standardized list should be allowed to use it. Efforts are being taken to reduce the abbreviation errors by creating a  list of abbreviations which are potentially dangerous ( Facts about the official. .).

However, these efforts look good on paper. The need is to bring it in practice and till now, it is not being brought in practice completely. The practice of safe and healthy medical treatment is possible only when the physicians and the pharmacists work in harmony with each other rather than blaming each other. After all, it is a  matter of life and death.              


Dangerous mix-ups between a cancer medicine and a thyroid medicine. September/October 2008. 11 September 2009

Facts about the Official "Do Not Use" List. 9 June 2009. 11 September 2009

Fred, Linda. Manual For Pharmacy Technicians. MD: American Society Of Health System Pharmacists. 2005.

Medication errors related to potentially dangerous abbreviations. 1 September 2001.11 September 2009

The American Pharmacists Association. Medication Errors. Ed. Michael Cohen. Washington DC: The American Pharmacists Association. 2007.

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