Difficulties with Medicinal Measurements Suggests a Change in How We Administer Doses

doseAccording to the American Center of Poison Control Centers, almost 7,500 parents contact poison centers every year with concerns that they had given their children too much medication or questions about dosage recommendations. As many of these calls seem to stem from the variety of different measurements listed on medication labels, including milliliters, milligrams, teaspoons, tablespoons and droppers, many healthcare associations are suggesting that a uniform unit be adopted: specifically, the milliliter. However, this recommendation is at odds with longstanding suspicions that Americans are unfamiliar with and intimidated by the metric system.

Because the United States uses the English system of measurement to quantify data, American corporations are often understandably cautious about using the metric system to describe the use of their product; Americans are believed to be not only inexperienced at using metric measurements, but unwilling to attempt using them. However, a recent study conducted by Dr. H. Shonna Yin from New York University School of Medicine seems to disprove this idea: when his team interviewed 287 parents whose children had recently been prescribed medication from the emergency departments at Bellevue Hospital or Woodhull Medical Center in New York city, they found that parents were less likely to make mistakes when they used milliliters rather than teaspoons to measure out doses. Comparatively, more than 40% of the parents who used teaspoons were found to have measured incorrectly. This could potentially be harmful or unhealthy for the recipient, particularly if the child is under 12 years of age.

A closer analysis of the parents’ mistakes reveals other troubling news, as well as problems with the current, non-uniform methods of measuring medication: many of the medicines did not come with a measuring device, causing them to search through drawers, often substituting tablespoons for teaspoons and vice versa. By accidentally over-dosing or under-dosing in this manner, children could suffer unexpected side effects or likely might not recover effectively. This raises a number of questions about how medication is currently prescribed: what if a patient mistakes the abbreviation for “tablespoons” with “teaspoons” due to the familiar difficulty of reading a physician’s handwriting? What if one form of measurement is not available, or physicians use a variety of measurement terms over the course of a conversation? What might the effect on the patient be?

Slowly but surely, a number of associations and corporations in the healthcare industry are beginning to make helpful changes by recommending using only milliliters in their dosages. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, has begun suggesting that doctors only use milliliters in their medical records, while the National Council of Prescription Drug Programs recommended that pharmacies they work with measure medication dosages in millimeters. With these and other organizations pushing for a uniform method of measuring medication, it will be interesting to see how patients medicate themselves and react to their treatments as a result.