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11/21/2002

Individual Liability Policies Help Protect Students, Technicians

Donna Young

Pharmacy students and technicians working in health-system or community pharmacies should not assume that, because they are not a licensed pharmacist or do not have valuable assets, they would not be named as a defendant in a lawsuit.

If a student or technician initiated the chain of events leading to a medication error and the patient or a family member sued the employer, the student or technician would more than likely also be named in the lawsuit, said pharmacist Joseph Fink III, University of Kentucky professor and an attorney.

For example, he said, a pharmacy intern was named as a defendant along with a community pharmacy in an Oklahoma lawsuit. The lawsuit claimed that the pharmacy's dispensing of the wrong medication harmed the patient, a child.

The pharmacy intern, Fink said, had received a prescription order over the phone and mistakenly wrote "Actifed," a combination antihistamine–decongestant product available in a syrup at the time, instead of the ipecac syrup that had been prescribed because the child had ingested a toxic substance. Ingestion of the Actifed syrup worsened the child’s condition, the family claimed in its lawsuit, and caused depression of the child’s central nervous system.

Even though the dosage instructions provided by the prescriber were inconsistent with Actifed’s labeling, Fink said, the pharmacist in charge did not catch the error and dispensed the wrong product.

Because that case was settled out of court, Fink said, it is difficult to know if the student’s personal finances were affected.

But, he said, students and technicians should be aware that a court could garnishee a person’s potential future earnings.

"And something like that hanging over a student’s head for years could be a real challenge financially to get out from under," he said.

Students and technicians should invest in individual professional liability insurance even if an employer claims to cover all employees under the organization’s liability policy, Fink said.

"An employer’s defense strategy in a lawsuit may not always be in the best interests of an employee," he said. "An employee, whether it is a pharmacist, intern, or technician, should have their own representation in a lawsuit."

Individual policies for pharmacy students and technicians are generally inexpensive, with premiums priced under $40 per year, he said.

Many professional organizations and university student affairs groups offer low-cost policies for students, interns, and technicians, Fink said.

Pharmacist Kenneth R. Baker, an attorney and vice president of Pharmacists Mutual Insurance Co. of Algona, Iowa, said many pharmacy schools require students completing experiential rotations to buy an individual policy.

Organizations generally have liability policies that cover a preceptor if a student’s negligence leads to a lawsuit, Baker said. But preceptors, he added, should also protect themselves with an individual policy.

Pharmacy student Rebecca Gordon, who graduates in May with a Pharm.D. degree and a master’s degree in business administration from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, said she had never given much thought to investing in an individual liability policy.

But after completing an internship with Baker’s company and "seeing what can happen to people involved in lawsuits," she has decided that "$32 spent on a policy is worth it."

Pharmacist David Brushwood, a professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville and an attorney, said "it’s probably a good idea" for pharmacy students working in pharmacies to invest in an individual liability policy. But, he said, the best advice he can offer to students about avoiding lawsuits is to seek more supervision from a preceptor.

"If you feel uncomfortable, then ask for your work to be checked," he said.

Pharmacy technicians and interns need to make sure they are staying within the bounds of state laws, he added.

"Just because someone tells you that something has always been done a certain way, it does not mean it is right or within the law," he said. "Asking if something is correct and having your work checked is the best policy."