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Over 200 million NHS ‘medication errors’ per year says report

A collaborative study between the Universities of Manchester, York, and Sheffield, funded by the Department of Health, explores the impacts of medication errors on the NHS and patient health

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The collaborative report, presented last week at the World Patient Safety Science and Technology Summit, focused on how common medication errors are and how they may affect patients’ health and increase the financial burden on the NHS.

It used economic modelling to estimate that approximately 237 million medication errors occur in England each year, with around 66 million of these leading to harm. These may contribute to between 1,700-22,000 deaths from avoidable adverse drug reactions and cost the NHS £95 million per year.

A medication error is a “preventable event that may lead to inappropriate medication use, increase costs and cause minor or severe harm including death.” These errors may arise when prescribing, dispensing, administering or monitoring drugs.

Professor Mark Sculpher, University of York, said: “Although these error rates may look high, there is no evidence suggesting they differ markedly from those in other high-income countries.

“Almost three in four errors would never harm patients and some may be picked up before they reach the patients, but more research is needed to understand just how many that is.”

While the study recognises that most errors do not lead to any harm, it also concedes little is known about how the remaining 27 per cent leads to injury or illness in patients and increases costs.

Fiona Campbell, a researcher on the report from the University of Sheffield, explains, “Measuring harm to patients from medication errors is difficult for several reasons, one being that harm can sometimes occur when medicines are used correctly, but now that we have more understanding of the number of errors that occur we have an opportunity to do more to improve NHS systems.”

As one of the possible consequence of medication errors is adverse drug reactions, this research further looked into their effect on the NHS. It drew upon 36 studies on the matter, ranging from primary healthcare settings, such as a GP practice, to secondary settings, like emergency care.

The data reveals that most harmful errors take place in primary settings and that the cost of such medication errors depends on the level of complication. Costs of such errors can go from £60 per error for a basic problem to up to £6 million for a major complication.

University of Manchester researcher on the report, Professor Rachel Elliott,  argues: “the NHS is a world-leader in this area of research, and this is why we have a good idea about error rates. There is still a lot to do in finding cost-effective ways to prevent medication errors.

What this report is showing us is that we need better linking of information across the NHS to help find more ways of preventing medication errors.”