Too much, too little, too late: the hazards of prescription errors

29 May 2012

“Do no harm”, the tenet of the Hippocratic oath, came to the fore recently with the publication of research into GP prescription errors.  Professor Tony Avery led research which reviewed 6,000 GP prescriptions and revealed a prescription error rate of 1 in 20 (please click here to view the research).  Problems highlighted included inappropriate prescriptions, especially among children and the elderly, lack of follow up and questionable repeat prescriptions. 

Professor Avery’s report focused on GP error rates, but of course prescription and drug administration errors may also occur in the hospital setting. 

Indeed, a number of hospital prescription errors have recently hit the headlines.  An Inquest was recently held into the death of premature twins who died after doctors injected them with 17 times the prescribed amount of morphine.  It was noted that staff were inexperienced and didn’t understand the dilutive procedure. 

Another concentration error occurred recently at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital when a child was injected with 80% phenol (carbolic acid).  The doctor had apparently intended to use a 5% concentration, but misread the label. There are also instances where the correct drug is prescribed, but the wrong drug is given which would be typical of a pharmaceutical, nursing or systems error.  Other mistakes include incorrect mode of administration, which can have fatal consequences, or failure to take account of contraindications. 

Not all prescription errors will result in a successful claim, as firstly the mistake must be one which no reasonably competent practitioner would have made, but secondly it must be proved that the error has caused harm. 

Cases of prescription error dealt with at Kingsley Napley include anaesthetic awareness, maladministration of Vincristine, delay in administration of Acyclovir, excessive doses of steroids and failure to prescribe prophylatic antibiotics. 

Of course, the overwhelming majority of prescriptions are safely and properly made.  However, this is little comfort to those who have had the misfortune to be harmed by avoidable error and the recommendations of Professor Avery to reduce prescription errors are to be welcomed. 

If you have been injured in an accident or as a result of prescription errors and you would like advice about bringing a claim, please contact the Clinical Negligence and Personal Injury team on 020 7814 1200

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