Jeremy Hunt is ordering an NHS crackdown on errors in dispensing drugs to patients, which research shows could be contributing to as many as 22,000 people dying every year.
The health and social care secretary says mistakes involving medication, both in the NHS and globally, are “causing appalling levels of harm and death that are totally avoidable”.
In a speech on patient safety on Friday he will outline new measures to reduce errors that researchers from York, Manchester and Sheffield universities say cause 712 deaths a year in England and may be implicated in between 1,700 and 22,303 others.
Patients can suffer harm or die when they are given the wrong drug or the wrong dose, and also from their prescription taking an hour more to be dispensed than it should, they found.
About 270m drug errors happen every year, though three-quarters result in no harm to patients, according to the findings, which were commissioned by the government.
Under Hunt’s plans hospitals will be able to access prescribing data collected by an admitted patient’s GP to see if drugs they have been taking have led to them being admitted to hospital. Initially that will involve only patients being treated for gastro-intestinal bleeding, which can cause harm or death. Doctors will be able to check, for example, if a patient has been taking a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug but not been given another drug to reduce the chances of them suffering digestive bleeding. The system will be extended later to other conditions.
The introduction of electronic prescribing systems into the NHS, which only a third of acute trusts have, will also be sped up. And pharmacists will be able to use new defences if they make a mistake with a patient’s drugs, replacing the current system, under which they can be prosecuted.
The new research estimates that 71% of the 270m annual drug errors occur when patients see a GP or practice nurse. Mistakes happen more often with older patients and those who have a number of illnesses and who use many medications.
Dr Helen Stokes-Lampard, the chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Our patients should be reassured that in the vast majority of cases, prescriptions are made appropriately and correctly. But as well as being highly qualified medical professionals, doctors are also human, so medication mistakes can and occasionally do happen.”
She welcomed Hunt’s initiative but warned mistakes can occur because of “intense resource and workforce pressures, meaning that workloads and working hours are often unsafe for GPs and our teams”. Stokes-Lampard added: “The long-lasting solution to this is a properly funded NHS with enough staff to deliver safe patient care.”
Leyla Hannbeck, the chief pharmacist at the National Pharmacy Association, which represents independent pharmacies, said that community pharmacists dispense about 1bn prescription items a year.
“It’s estimated that pharmacists query about 6.6m of those items, helping resolve many incidents that might otherwise have resulted in serious harm,” she said.
The World Health Organization has called drug error “a leading cause of injury and avoidable harm in healthcare systems across the world”. It is leading efforts to halve the serious harm such incidents cause internationally over the next five years.