Layoffs of School Nurses Lead to Concerns About Medication Errors

The Philadelphia School District laid off 141 employees at the end of 2011, including forty-seven school nurses. Schools across the country, facing budget shortfalls, are turning to layoffs. Many schools now have no full-time nurses, relying instead on other staff, including coaches and teacher’s aides, to dispense medications to students during the school day. Nurses, teachers, and others have complained that this puts students at greater risk of injury due to medication errors. School nurses deal with more than just scraped knees. Many students require careful administration of medications for asthma, diabetes, seizure disorders, attention deficit disorder, and more.

The district’s largest union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), filed a formal complaint at the end of January, alleging that the use of non-nurse staff to dispense medications to students violates state law. Some nurses, the PFT says, must cover multiple schools, meaning that students have long wait periods for functions schools are required to perform under the Department of Health’s Guidelines for Pennsylvania Schools for Administration of Medications and Emergency Care. Staff members who do not have training and certification in nursing do not always know what sort of care students need, and they are more likely to make mistakes.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has run a series of stories about the risks students face with limited nursing staff available in schools. Accounts of errors range from missed dosages of medicine to accidental administration of the wrong medication. In several instances, staff members confused the drug methyphenidate, the generic name for the ADD drug Ritalin, with the narcotic pain medication methadone. The two drugs have similar names, but very different purposes and effects.

According to the Inquirer, research has suggested that use by schools of “unlicensed assistive personnel” (UAP’s), meaning staff members who are not licensed nurses, makes medication errors three times more likely than when a nurse is available. Schools also take an increasingly active role in medical care for students, as more and more children receive treatment for diabetes and other chronic illnesses, and more students report problems with food allergies. A study from the University of Iowa cited by the Inquirer found that 5.6 percent of children in the surveyed schools received medications in school on a daily basis, with 3.3 percent receiving ADD medications. Nearly half of the nurses reported encountering medication errors. The most common error was missing a dosage that a student should have gotten, but nurses also encountered children receiving someone else’s medication and staff administering medications incorrectly (such as ear drops going in the eye). Most of these errors involved UAP’s.

Since budget problems may not go away any time soon, parents should work with doctors to create a schedule that minimizes the amount of medications children need during school hours. They should also communicate with school officials to find out how medications are disbursed during the day, who disburses them, and how the school handles errors.

The Maryland pharmacy error attorneys at Lebowitz & Mzhen can assist you if you have been injured by drugs prescribed or administered incorrectly. Contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949 to see if you may recover damages.

More Blog Posts:

NCL Campaign to Improve Medication Adherence and Patient Safety, Pharmacy Error Injury Lawyer, May 15, 2011
DEA Fights Prescription Drug Errors and Abuse with National Take-Back Initiative, Pharmacy Error Injury Lawyer, September 28, 2010
Children at Maryland Schools Rely on School Nurses for Proper Medication, Pharmacy Error Injury Lawyer, February 17, 2009

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