Medication errors could cause up to 1,700 deaths and contribute to thousands more each year, according to research commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

Researchers from the Universities of Sheffield, Manchester and York found that medication errors – including delivering prescriptions an hour late or giving the wrong drug – may cause around 1,700 deaths and contribute to up to 22,000 deaths every year. They estimate that these cost the NHS £1.6bn a year.

Although most prescriptions are safely dispensed, there are around 237 million drug errors every year, which can occur at any levels including prescribing, dispensing, administering and monitoring, the research said.

Double-edged sword

National Pharmacy Association (NPA) chief pharmacist Leyla Hannbeck said that ‘all medicines have the power to harm as well as to heal’.

She added: ‘Measures that embed a culture of learning rather than blame in the health service are especially important because this can have a long lasting benefit across the system and certainly saves lives.

‘Avoiding patient harm is the first duty of every healthcare professional, and that is deeply ingrained in the minds of local pharmacists, who between them dispense more than a billion prescription items every year.’

Improving patient safety

Findings from the research come at the same time as Health and Social Care secretary Jeremy Hunt is expected to introduce new initiatives designed to improve patient safety in the NHS.

Speaking at the Global Patient Safety summit in London today (23 February), he will say that the ‘medication error in the NHS and globally is a far bigger problem than generally recognised, causing appalling levels of harm and death that are totally preventable’.

He will add: ‘We are taking a number of steps today, but part of the change needs also to be cultural: moving 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 measures include:

  • Dispensing error decriminalisation that will provide pharmacists and pharmacy technicians with a legal defence for inadvertent dispensing errors, which is likely to come into effect in April.
  • New systems linking prescribing data in primary care to hospital admissions, which will allow the NHS to check whether a patient was admitted to hospital because of the prescription.

A recent BBC Inside Out investigation explored alleged workplace pressure placed upon Boots pharmacists and how this could potentially lead to dispensing errors. It found that staffing levels were low and pharmacists couldn’t cope with the overwhelming amount of work.