Plans revealed to tackle medication errors

AMBITIOUS new plans to reduce medication errors in England have been unveiled by the health secretary as new research suggests they could contribute to as many as 22,000 deaths each year.

An estimated 237 million medication errors occur every year, ranging from delivering a prescription an hour late to a patient being given the wrong drugs. The new research suggests mistakes may cause around 1,700 deaths each year and cost the NHS £1.6 billion.

Health and social care secretary Jeremy Hunt said that, while the “vast majority” of prescriptions dispensed in the NHS are safe, more must be done to reduce patient harm and improve safety.

His new measures include:

  • New systems linking prescribing data in primary care to hospital admissions. This will allow NHS staff to see if a prescription was the likely cause of the hospital admission.
  •  New defences for pharmacists who make accidental medication errors, with less focus on prosecution for “genuine mistakes”. This aims to ensure the NHS learns from mistakes and builds a culture of openness and transparency.
  • Accelerating the introduction of electronic prescribing systems across more NHS hospitals this year, which could reduce errors by up to 50 per cent.

Currently only a third of trusts are said to have a well-functioning e-prescribing system. Mr Hunt also called for cultural change within the NHS and said there must be a move “from a blame culture to a learning culture so doctors and nurses are supported to be open about mistakes rather than cover them up for fear of losing their job.”

The new measures have been welcomed by campaigners, including Catherine Young whose mother was harmed by a medication error.

She said: “Despite my mother being given someone else’s prescription, resulting in a clear deterioration in her condition, three professional agencies did not notice the errors and it was down to me, a layman with no medical training, to sound the alarm.

“Thankfully we were able to act in time, but others have not been so lucky – so I welcome any measures that will help to reduce errors and stop other families from suffering this kind of trauma in the future."

RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said GPs already use systems designed to help them prescribe safely, and that "the College would welcome any additional resources or technology that will help to further minimise the risks of making a medication error."

She added: "Systems better linking prescribing data in primary care to hospital admissions, sound like a particularly good and necessary step forward."