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26.02.18

Hunt pledges to tackle medication errors linked to 22,000 yearly deaths

Health and social care secretary Jeremy Hunt has announced plans to improve patient safety by reviewing medication errors.

The announcement comes after research by the universities of York, Manchester and Sheffield revealed that there are an estimated 237 million medication errors in the NHS in England each year.

The research, which was commissioned by the Department of Health Policy Research Programme, also found that avoidable adverse drug reactions (ADRs) cause an estimated 712 deaths, and could be a contributory factor to between 1,700 and 22,303 deaths a year.

Almost three-quarters of medication errors are unlikely to result in patient harm, but the researchers cautioned that there is very little information on actual harm.

It was also revealed that avoidable ADRs cost the NHS almost £100m per year, but that this figure could be significantly higher.

Whilst the figures seem high, Mark Sculpher, professor of health economics at the University of York, said that there is no evidence that they are markedly different form other high-income countries.

Hunt has proposed that hospitals will be able to access prescribing data from a patient’s GP, in order to assess whether the drugs they have been taking have led to their admission. Initially, this will apply to patients who are admitted with gastro-intestinal bleeding, but will be extended to other conditions later.

He has also announced that the introduction of electronic prescribing systems will be sped up – currently, only around a third of trusts have electronic prescribing in place.

In addition, there will be more protection for pharmacists to prevent them from being prosecuted in the event of a genuine error.

It is hoped that these steps will enable the NHS to learn from mistakes, and Dr. Richard Vautrey, BMA GP committee chair, welcomed the announcement: “While the vast majority of prescribing is carried out to a high standard, adverse incidents can still occur. 

“The NHS needs to learn from these instances, and we hope these plans will lead to improved systems in hospitals and community settings that reduce the possibility of errors as much as possible.”

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, added: “GPs already use systems designed to help them prescribe safely, but the college would welcome any additional resources or technology that will help to further minimise the risks of making a medication error, such as those outlined by the health and social care secretary.

“Systems better linking prescribing data in primary care to hospital admissions, sound like a particularly good and necessary step forward.”

However, she warned that highlighting the fact that errors happen must be to address the root cause, and not be used to admonish staff for making genuine mistakes – citing “intense resource and workforce pressures” as common causes of errors in general practice.

Janet Davies, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, warned that staffing issues and financial pressures should not be ignored: “The report cites human error as one of the biggest risks.

“Electronic prescribing helps, but you need to look at the end-to-end process,” she stressed. “Our members tell us they are rushed off their feet and are being moved from ward to ward because there aren’t enough staff.

“The high use of agency nurses brings an unintended risk too – fewer mistakes are made when patients are cared for by staff who work permanently at that hospital and know its patients, equipment and procedures.”

(Top image c. Ben Stevens/PA Wire)

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