Taking a child to a hospital emergency room is among the most intense experiences of parenthood, and the thought of medical errors does not help. Medical experts recognized that children are especially vulnerable to medical errors in emergency rooms, and significant research is focusing on medication.

Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a policy statement to help guide and define the progress experts still need to make to keep children safe from medication errors in emergencies.

Why emergency rooms can be risky for anyone

Emergency rooms are challenging places to do medicine and particularly to prescribe medication. Although some of the reasons may especially affect children, they can put anyone at higher risk for medication errors.

  • Unfamiliar, complex patients on multiple medications.
  • The lack of a clinical pharmacist on emergency teams.
  • Hectic environments with frequent interruptions.
  • Verbal instead of written orders.
  • Transitions from one set of caregivers to another.

Why emergency rooms are especially risky for children

Some features of emergency rooms can be problems for children almost uniquely.

  • Lack of standardized drug doses and formulas for children.
  • Doses based on weight instead of age.
  • Computer safety features not tailored for child patients.
  • Most child patients arrive in community, not pediatric, hospitals.

Studies have also found that even in “prehospital” medical care, medication errors are common in children. This can complicate emergency room care, or even cause trips to the ER in the first place.

Medication errors are common in child emergencies

The statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics cited a study that found medication error rates in children ranging from 10% to 31%. And these rates were for institutions with specifically pediatric emergency rooms.

Another study looking at four rural emergency departments found an error rate of 39%. Of these, 16% had the potential to cause harm, according to the study.