Smart Thinking



Just call Michael Cohen a genius.

Although he will modestly refute the title, that's exactly what the prestigious MacArthur Fellows Program is calling the Huntingdon Valley pharmacist in awarding him their recent "genius" grant of $500,000.

The MacArthur Fellowship is a five-year grant to individuals who show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.

The program selects individuals from all fields, and offers them flexibility to pursue their work as they see fit. The stipend carries no restrictions, and is designed to provide a kind of seed money for intellectual, social and artistic endeavors.

As president and founder of the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, Cohen was an obvious recipient, having displayed his passion for patient safety, and a commitment to reducing preventable drug and drug-delivery mistakes that kill thousands of people each year. An early pioneer in an international movement to address medication error, Cohen is a recognized leader in promoting increased consumer vigilance, drug-industry accountability and practitioner responsibility.

A nonprofit barely two years old, the group – "with our relatively small staff of 23, including nurses, pharmacists and one physician – spends all of our time receiving and disseminating reports of actual mistakes that have been made by health-care professionals and sometimes patients. They tell us about things that went wrong," explains Cohen.

For example, he continues, there was the case at a local hospital that was very well-publicized: "There is a medication called potassium chloride, which is commonly used in IV solutions post-operatively in a very diluted form to replace an element that is used during surgery."

In the case to which Cohen refers, a mix-up happened in the hospital pharmacy when the potassium chloride was sitting in a bin next to dextrose and water in the same-sized container. "Unfortunately, the person mixing the drug for babies accidentally picked up the potassium instead of the dextrose, causing three infants to go into cardiac arrest and die."

When Mistakes Happen …

Cohen co-founded the continuous, voluntary and confidential Medication Error Reporting Program for medical professionals to learn about and understand the causes of errors across the nation. Where once errors were undisclosed and viewed as embarrassing to the health-care industry, Cohen stresses that "the active collection of these reports has helped generate practical and early responses, and to combat potentially widespread and dangerous outcomes."

Cohen, who earned a Bachelor's of Science degree and a Master's of Science degree from Temple University, also received honorary degrees in science from the University of the Sciences, in science from Long Island University, and in public service from the University of Maryland.

He has held pharmacy leadership positions at Temple University Hospital and Quakertown Community Hospital. Since 1976, he has taught at the Temple University School of Pharmacy, where he is now an adjunct associate professor.

Additionally, he's the editor of the book Medication Error, and co-editor of the newsletter "ISMP Medication Safety Alert!" And he recently established a Web site that explains educational awareness, medication safety tools and resources, and a way to report errors.

"But," says Cohen, "I am definitely not a genius. People think I'm just being modest, but I'm just being honest. The true honor really belongs to people who have reported problems to us all these years – and also to the staff with whom I work who come up with such great prevention ideas.

"We've preached safety and learned so much here that now I'd like to spend my new grant money and my time helping with industry improvements outside the United States."

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