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A trip to the local drug store to fill a prescription seems as benign as a trip to the supermarket to buy a quart of milk. As a matter of fact, many supermarkets now have pharmacies. In addition to the huge number and varied types of pharmacies, add the proliferation of new drugs and the aging of the general population, and you get billions of prescriptions filled each year.

The United States is currently facing a shortage of pharmacists. More drugs to fill, increasingly complex combinations and formulas, pharmacies everywhere, but not enough pharmacists – a recipe for sure disaster. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy has estimated as many as 7,000 deaths each year in the United States due to pharmacy mistake. Solutions will not be easy unless significant numbers of well-trained pharmacists are added to the current force. Computerization is helping, including software that flags unusual doses or combinations. Still, there is no substitute for a competent and careful pharmacist. In the meantime, you need to protect yourself and children by reading the prescription, the label, and if possible the pill, before taking or administering it. These steps will not always spot a potentially tragic pharmacy error, but they can lessen the chance of one happening to you or a loved one.

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