A new study has revealed that deaths from medication mistakes at home, like actor Heath Ledger's accidental overdose, has increased dramatically.
Researchers at the University of California in San Diego said that the Australian actor's tragic death - at just 28 years old - exemplifies the fatal dangers of asking patients to monitor their own medication.
For the study, researchers examined nearly 50 million U.S. death certificates from 1983 to 2004, and focused on a subset of 200,000 deaths from medication errors.
They found a 3,196 per cent rise in fatal domestic medication errors involving alcohol and/or street drugs in a 21-year-period.
"The decades-long shift in the location of medication consumption from clinical to domestic settings is linked to a dramatic increase in fatal medication errors," said principal author David P. Phillips, professor of sociology at UC San Diego.
"Increasingly, people take their medications at home, away from hospitals and clinics. But most studies of fatal medication errors have focused on those clinical settings. We wanted to know three things: how many of these fatal errors happen at home; how many involve alcohol and/or street drugs; and are these numbers going up?" he added.
Phillips and his colleagues Gwendolyn E.C. Barker and Megan M. Eguchi, all at UC San Diego, examined trends in four types of fatal medication errors.
They noted that the rise in fatal errors varies by astonishing amounts based on where the errors occur and the particular combinations of drugs.
Type 1 errors, deaths at home from combining medications with alcohol and/or street drugs, skyrocketed by 3,196 percent.
On contrary, type 4 errors, non-domestic fatal errors not involving alcohol or street drugs, show the smallest increase, just 5 percent.
The intermediate types of errors increased by intermediate amounts. Type 2 errors, domestic medication fatalities not involving alcohol or street drugs, increased by 564 percent.
Type 3 errors, non-domestic medication fatalities involving alcohol and/or street drugs, increased by 555 percent.
"Thus, domestic fatal medication errors, combined with alcohol and/or street drugs, have become an increasingly important health problem," the sociologists said.
Besides possible changes in policy and clinical practice, Phillips said: "it also seems advisable to expand research on medication errors. Much of this research has focused on elderly patients and clinical settings. The present findings suggest that more research should be devoted to middle-aged patients and domestic settings."
The study appears in the July 28 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, an official journal of the American Medical Association.