A friend and colleague of mine and I were talking about pharmacy order verification and errors the other day.
Many (all?) acute care pharmacies use the number of orders entered/verified by pharmacists per unit of time as a performance metric. The theory being that the more orders you verify the busier you are and therefore the more work you do. Sounds logical. And it is. And it also isn’t. It is because more orders typically equates to a heavier patient load and/or sicker patients, which in turn results in more work. It isn’t because some orders – and the associated distribution of medications associated with those orders – are significantly more complex than others. Chemotherapy is a good example of this. The amount of work required to verify and dispense your average chemotherapy order is several orders of magnitude greater than an order for, oh I don’t know, a saline-lock.
So in theory, a pharmacist verifying more chemotherapy will certainly have lower numbers than a pharmacist verifying routine medication orders. However, when evaluating the number of orders verified over an entire year, one would expect the number of complicated orders handled per pharmacist to average out over the long haul. That’s not complicated math, just common sense.
Assuming that every pharmacist is on equal footing, and that the number of orders verified is a reasonable performance metric, what then is a reasonable number of orders to be verified per hour, per shift, or per year to be considered good, bad, or average? It’s impossible to say. One would think that the higher the number the better the productivity. Here’s the thing, during periods of high volume order verification, pharmacists make more mistakes. Not just mathematically more, i.e. 1% of 300 is more than 1% of 200, but a higher percentage of mistakes.
From a blog post at the American Pharmacist Association (APhA) website: “the number of medication errors increased with the number of orders verified per pharmacist per shift” … According to the findings, the verification of more than 400 orders per shift per pharmacist was associated with the highest risk of errors…“Once we got to the 400 mark, meaning 400 orders verified per pharmacist, [we] started to reach a higher number of errors,” said Christy Gorbach, PharmD, coauthor of the study“. The study referred to in the APhA post is this one.
So it would appear on the surface that using volume of orders verified as a performance metric is actually driving pharmacists to make more mistakes, thus leading to less productivity, not more. (1)
With the increased adoption of EHRs, the number of orders verified per pharmacist is only going to grow. EHRs have made order entry quick and easy. Physicians create lists – favorites, order sets, etc. – that allow them to simply check a box and put patients on multiple medications in a matter of seconds. This is especially true for what I refer to as “don’t-call-me” orders. Don’t-call-me orders consist of multiple PRN medications to cover everything from fever to constipation; all designed to prevent the physician from receiving a phone call at 3 o’clock in the morning, i.e. don’t call me. Most of these orders go unused and simply complicate the medication profile and medication administration record.(2) Verifying such a large number of redundant, benign orders creates alert fatigue and selective blindness which ultimately leads to something important getting missed.
All in all, the results are increased verification numbers, more work, and as it turns out, more errors. Unfortunately, I have no answer to the problem. And make no mistake, it is a problem. Orders have to get verified and released, and patients must receive their medications in a timely manner. With that said, safety must also be a top priority. Medication errors are unacceptable.
Overall, it appears that using volume of orders verified by a pharmacist as a performance metric is a bad idea. I think it’s time to slow down, pay attention, and create an environment that rewards pharmacists for the quality of their work, not for the speed at which they perform it.
- Medication errors can lead to all kinds of problems, among them wasted time.
- All the pharmacists reading this are shaking their head and grinning because they know exactly what I’m talking about. What pharmacist hasn’t seen a post-op C-section order with 15 to 20 PRN medication orders, including half a dozen different pain meds that never get used? It happens all the time.