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Hospitals testing ways to cut blunders

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TRENTON, N.J. — At Cooper Hospital in Camden, patients don't have to worry about a misread doctor's chicken scratch giving them the wrong drug or dose. Prescriptions are typed into a computer.

At the nation's veterans hospitals, bar code scanners identify the patient's medicine and also ensure that it won't cause any harm.

And at Jersey Shore Medical Center in Neptune, a pharmacy robot reads electronic medical charts, pulls bar-coded medicine from stock shelves, makes labels and sorts them into labeled bins, eliminating human error.

Under the microscope after a damning 1999 report about errors killing thousands of patients each year, hospitals across America are testing a wide range of solutions. They are trying everything from better training and new medication-handling procedures to installing sophisticated, multimillion-dollar technology meant to catch mistakes that harried doctors and nurses sometimes miss.

"I think all hospitals are trying to do something to make the use of medication safer," although many still have not laid out the money for pricey, high-tech solutions, said Dr. David Classen, a consultant and hospital internist.

The most complex systems can cost up to $5 million, plus millions more for customizing, staff training and maintenance, said Classen, who works for First Consulting Group of Long Beach, Calif., which helps hospitals choose computerized systems.