Short staffing makes it more likely that nurses and other staff will make errors with medication, the Royal College of Nursing has warned following a high profile report on the issue.
A study commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Care has estimated that over 237 million medication errors are made each year in England with 66 million potentially significant clinical mistakes.
“Medication errors are a common cause of harm to patients”
The researchers, who published their findings today, estimated that drug errors caused 700 deaths a year and could also be a factor in between 1,700 and 22,300 others.
The error rates in the UK were “similar” to those in other comparable health settings such as the US and the European Union, noted the researchers from Manchester, Sheffield and York universities.
In their high profile report, they acknowledged there was limited data in this area and so the figures represented very much best estimates based on previous research, some of it going back years.
However, they highlighted that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, anticoagulants and antiplatelets caused over a third of hospital admissions due to avoidable adverse drug reactions.
In addition, gastrointestinal bleeds were implicated in half of the deaths from primary care adverse drug reactions, and older people were more likely to suffer avoidable reactions.
Source: Neil O’Connor
The researchers stated: “Medication errors are a common cause of harm to patients and can include prescribing, dispensing, administration and monitoring errors.
“Errors can be minor, leading to no harm, ranging through to major errors causing serious harm and death, and associated healthcare and wider costs,” they added.
Health and social care secretary Jeremy Hunt presented some of the report’s findings today at a patient safety summit in London, where he also set out steps intended to reduce mistakes.
Such moves included accelerating the rollout of electronic prescribing systems in hospitals this year, which the DHSC said could reduce errors by half. It said only a third of hospitals currently had a “well functioning e-prescribing system”.
But, responding to the report, Janet Davies, RCN chief executive and general secretary, said: “Short staffing and severe financial pressures create an environment where it’s easier to make mistakes.
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“The report cites human error as one of the biggest risks. Electronic prescribing helps, but you need to look at the end to end process,” said MS Davies.
“The review acts as a reminder of the need to address NHS staffing levels,” she said. “We need the people with the right skills and knowledge in the right place.”
Ms Davies also claimed that the high use of agency nurses brought an “unintended risk”, arguing that fewer mistakes were made when patients were cared for by permanent hospital staff.
“The government cannot go on ignoring the evidence. Only by setting safe and effective staffing levels in legislation, in every part of the UK, can we improve patient safety,” she added.