Prolific drug market breeds mix-ups

Published: Monday, September 1, 2008 at 11:59 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, September 1, 2008 at 11:59 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Take the generic drug clonidine for high blood pressure? Double-check that you didn’t leave the drugstore with Klonopin for seizures, or the gout medicine colchicine.

Mixing up drug names because they look or sound alike — like this trio — is among the most common types of medical mistakes, and it can be deadly.

Nearly 1,500 commonly used drugs have names so similar to at least one other medication that they’ve already caused mix-ups, says a major study by the U.S. Pharmacopeia, which helps set drug standards and promotes patient safety.

Last week the influential group opened a Web-based tool to let consumers and doctors easily check if they’re using or prescribing any of these error-prone drugs and what they might confuse it with. Try to spell or pronounce a few on the site — — and it’s easy to see how mistakes can happen. Did you mean the painkiller Celebrex or the antidepressant Celexa?

The Food and Drug Administration — which currently rejects more than a third of proposed names for new drugs because they’re too similar to old ones — is preparing a pilot program that would shift more responsibility to manufacturers to guard against name confusion.

“There are so many new drugs approved each year, this problem can only get worse,” warns USP vice president Diane Cousins.

At least 1.5 million Americans are estimated to be harmed each year from a variety of medication errors, and name mix-ups are blamed for a quarter of them.

Rarely does a company change a drug’s name after it hits the market, although it’s happened twice since 2005.

The Alzheimer’s drug Reminyl now is named Razadyne, after mix-ups, including two reported deaths, with the old diabetes drug Amaryl. The cholesterol pill Omacor is now named Lovaza, after confusion and mix-ups with blood-clotting Amicar.

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