Action to stem a plethora of avoidable deaths in England owing to medication errors is to be announced on Friday by Jeremy Hunt, health and social care secretary.
His move comes after research, commissioned by the Department of Health, highlighted the impact of medication errors on patients and the fragile finances of the National Health Service.
Errors ranged from a drugs prescription being delivered one hour late to a patient, to someone receiving medication for someone else. Researchers at Manchester, Sheffield and York universities concluded such mistakes may be causing about 1,700 deaths each year, and potentially contributing to a further 20,300, at a cost of about £1.6bn to the NHS.
Medication errors are an international problem, with the World Health Organisation designating it as “a leading cause of injury and avoidable harm in healthcare systems across the world”.
Mr Hunt will say on Friday that although the NHS does well in international comparisons, the research “shows 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 say that, alongside his action, “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”.
In total, the research suggests 237m medication errors are made each year. These can happen at any point at which a patient comes into contact with a drug, including when it is prescribed, dispensed, administered or monitored.
Mr Hunt will promise changes designed to reduce the risk of medication errors, including systems linking prescribing activity by family doctors to hospital admissions.
The aim is to figure out whether a prescription is likely to have been the cause of a patient being admitted to hospital.
The health department said doctors would, for example, be able to trace whether a patient who had been regularly prescribed a non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drug ended up in hospital with a gastro-intestinal bleed because they were not given something to protect their digestive system.
The introduction of electronic-prescribing systems will be stepped up across NHS hospitals this year, in a move experts said could reduce medication errors by up to 50 per cent.
Currently only a third of NHS hospital trusts have “a well-functioning e-prescribing system”, said the health department.
In an attempt to develop a culture of openness, in which people will not be afraid to own up to mistakes, new defences for pharmacists who make accidental medication errors when dispensing drugs will be introduced.
Under current rules pharmacists can be prosecuted even if they make genuine mistakes.
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