Health staff involved in up to 8,000 drug errors a year


HEALTH WORKERS are involved in up to 8,000 medication errors or near-misses in Irish hospitals each year, new figures indicate.

These incidents include providing the incorrect medication, the wrong dose of medicine or giving drugs to the incorrect patient.

Fresh data compiled by the State Claims Agency shows there have been some 35,310 incidents involving medication between between 2004 and 2010. However, just under 100 of these incidents resulted in a claim for compensation.

The most common form of incident involved the incorrect dose (7,022), followed by missed medication (5,095), incorrect medication (4,199), incorrect labelling (1,852), or medicine given at the incorrect time (1,029).

Medication errors or incidents are an international problem, with studies indicating that around one in 10 patients end up being harmed in some way following admission.

Issues involving drugs are among the most common forms of errors in hospital settings. However, there is still doubt over whether these figures represent the true scale of the problem.

The Commission on Patient Safety and Quality Assurance report, published in 2008, set out a roadmap for driving improvements in safety and quality across the health service.

It found that the absence of accountability arrangements such as quality assurance, and monitoring of professionals such as doctors, was limiting the extent to which patients can be protected.

On foot of the report, authorities have been working on ways to improve the safe use of medicine in the hands of professionals, while several hospitals have had long-standing medication safety programmes to reduce the risks.

Groups such as Patient Focus have welcomed initiatives to tackle errors, but insist the scale of the problem has not been fully acknowledged by health professionals. It has supported calls for a mandatory duty on the part of health workers to report adverse incidents.

Lawyers who specialise in medical negligence also say that while health authorities have been talking about being more open about mistakes, there is still major resistance on the ground.

The figures collated by the State Claims Agency broadly tally with previous research conducted by the Irish Medication Safety Network. It recorded a total of 6,179 medication reports of mistakes or near-misses over an 18-month period by eight major hospitals between 2006 and 2007.

While the vast majority of incidents – 95 per cent – did not result in any patient harm, it estimated that 11 incidents may have either contributed to or resulted in life-threatening harm or death.

Studies into this area say that errors arise due to the complex way medicine is handled. There may be up to 40 steps involved in delivering a single dose of medication to a patient involving various healthcare professionals.

The State Claims Agency also works closely with medical professionals to highlight issues or trends within the sector, and to work on ways of improving safety.

The new figures compiled by the agency show that of the 96 claims for compensation, most relate to incorrect medication (24 cases), an allergic reaction to a known allergen (20 cases) and incorrect dosage (15).

In general, clinical negligence claims cost the State around €50 million a year. The average cost of an award is just over €60,000.