Medication errors – an event happening with alarming frequency

17 Apr 2018 | Comment


It was worrying to hear of the recent study undertaken by the Policy Research Unit in Economics Evaluation of Health and Care Interventions, which revealed that annually there are an estimated 237 million medication errors.  This includes errors in prescribing, dispensing, administering and monitoring. It is difficult to see how such errors could be so prevalent when there should be safeguards in place to ensure that this does not happen.

Thankfully in the vast majority of cases, these medication errors will cause no harm. Unfortunately, there is a small proportion in which injury will happen. The statistics quoted for this do not make happy reading.

The study estimates that avoidable drug errors are directly causing more than 700 deaths a year, and could be contributing to between 1,700 and 22,000 deaths. The report, which analyses 36 studies that detail medication error rates in primary care, care homes and secondary care, showed that the most errors with the potential to cause harm happen in primary care (71%). This is not surprising as primary care is where most medicines in the NHS are prescribed and dispensed. Errors were more likely to occur in older people and in patients with multiple conditions and using many medicines.

Such errors cause additional costs to the NHS, not only through costs related to compensation claims, but also the increased medication costs for having to replace the medication dispensed in error and treating any harm/injury that has been caused by the medication error.

This research has led to Jeremy Hunt, Health and Social Care Secretary, to launch new measures to try to reduce these errors. This includes new systems linking prescribing data in primary care to hospital admissions, which will enable the hospital to determine if a prescription is the likely cause of a patient being admitted to hospital. It also includes electronic-prescribing systems across more NHS hospitals this year. It is claimed that this could reduce errors by up to 50 percent.  It is of concern why the scale of this problem has not been previously identified, and why such additional steps are now only just being taken to minimise this risk.

In our practice at Hugh James we have seen many cases of medication errors which have caused harm or death. Whilst it was apparent to us that this was a relatively frequent problem, the study reveals that this is much more prevalent than anyone could have anticipated. Prescription errors happen when someone is not receiving important medication that they should have been receiving, medication causing direct harm, or an adverse reaction. Often these can have devastating impacts, and we have been able to secure much needed the financial support for those affected.

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