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What Doctors Don't Tell You

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December 2019 (Vol. 4 Issue 10)

Up to 22,000 die from prescribing error in England every year
About the author: 
Bryan Hubbard

Up to 22,000 die from prescribing error in England every year image

Up to 22,000 people die every year in England alone because of an error when prescribing or dispensing their medication, a new study has found.

Around 237 million medication mistakes happen every year in England, and about 72 per cent of them are harmless—and some are detected before the patient even gets the drug—but at least 26 per cent of the mistakes have the potential to cause serious harm or even death, say researchers from the University of York.

They estimate that 66 million "clinically significant" errors happen every year that result in anything from 1,700 to 22,303 deaths. The most vulnerable are the elderly, those taking multiple medications and patients in care homes.

An error is most likely in the prescribing of a heart drug, such as an anti-coagulant or an anti-platelet drug, or painkillers such as NSAIDs (non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs). Around a third of all hospital admissions are due to an adverse reaction to one of these drugs, and gastrointestinal bleeds from the drugs are responsible for half of all the deaths being recorded.

Aside from the human cost, the errors are costing the UK taxpayer around £98.5 m every year in compensation pay-outs, the York researchers estimate—but this could be a gross underestimation and is based on the lowest number of cases causing permanent harm or death. If the highest estimate was used, pay-outs would be nearer to £2bn a year.

The rate of medication error is worrying, say the researchers—but they reckon similar rates would be seen in any developed country, including the US and other European countries.

They also point out that the figures are based on previous studies that are up to 10 years out-of-date, and the true picture today could be even gloomier.


(Source: Prevalence and Economic Burden of Medication Errors in the NHS in England. Report commissioned by the Policy Research Unit in Economics Evaluation of Health and Care Interventions, 2018)

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