Up to 22,000 people could be dying in England every year as a result of mistakes in the writing or dispensing of prescriptions, according to new research. In a speech last week, the health and social services secretary, Jeremy Hunt, demanded fresh measures to tackle the problem, which was identified in a government study carried out at York, Manchester and Sheffield universities. Researchers found that 270m such mistakes occur annually. While the vast majority cause no harm, more than 700 deaths a year are definitively linked to prescription errors, which could be implicated in the deaths of as many as 22,303 more people. They may have taken the wrong drugs or the wrong dose – or been forced to wait too long for their prescription.
Dr Helen Stokes-Lampard, the chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, told the Guardian that “medication mistakes can and occasionally do happen”. She places the blame in part on the “intense” workplace pressure on NHS doctors, saying: “The long-lasting solution to this is a properly funded NHS with enough staff to deliver safe patient care.” Whether or not Hunt heeds that warning, there are steps that patients can take themselves to mitigate the danger of a dodgy prescription, says Mike Hewitson, a Dorset-based pharmacist who sits on the board of the National Pharmacy Association. “The last line of defence against errors is always the patient,” he says.
Get to know your pharmacist
The first step to safe medication is building a relationship with your local pharmacy team. Patients who regularly get their drugs from different pharmacies are considered to be at higher risk, says Hewitson, “because their pharmacists don’t have the opportunity to see how they use their medication and to spot when that medication changes”.
Today, most prescriptions are delivered electronically, but ask your pharmacist about them, particularly if your drugs or the side-effects seem different to normal. “We’d rather have 100 people asking questions than for one to take the wrong medicine,” Hewitson says.
Don’t trust the internet
All pharmacists have at least five years of medical training, which is five years more than Dr Google. “The internet is a great tool,” says Hewitson, “but if it’s used incorrectly, it can be harmful.” It’s far safer to seek face-to-face advice from a qualified medical professional and to buy your drugs in person than to do either online.
Don’t hoard old drugs
Many people hoard old medicines, says Hewitson. That is a mistake. “They were prescribed antibiotics six years ago, and they get what they think are similar symptoms, so they start taking old medicines, which can be dangerous.”
The new study sounds scary, Hewitson admits. But it shouldn’t be. “When you are dealing with a billion prescription items every year, even the lowest error rates will lead to some quite big numbers,” he says. “The first thing I would say is not to panic. Overall, the system is very safe.”
Credit: Tim Walker for The Guardian, 26 February 2018.