Pharmacists are currently the only healthcare professionals who risk criminal charges and conviction for making an honest mistake.
This has been highlighted again through the tragic case of Martin White – a Northern Irish pharmacist, who has been handed a four-month suspended sentence for a dispensing error, which has been linked to a patient’s death.
Mr White was sentenced at Antrim Crown Court in December 2016 after he pleaded guilty to supplying a “medicinal product…which was not of the nature or quality specified in the prescription”.
Mr White had made a SALAD (sound alike, look alike drug) error – dispensing propranolol for a prescription of prednisolone. This may, in turn, have contributed to the death of an elderly patient.
The consequences of this mistake were undoubtedly terrible, and my heart goes out to the deceased patient’s family, however, I feel very uncomfortable about this kind of ruling. As a pharmacist – and a human – I have made dispensing errors over the years.
Luckily, none of my errors have led to patient harm, but they could have. I genuinely feel for Mr White, and it’s not hard to imagine myself in his shoes. Pharmacists spend their days clinically, legally and sometimes accuracy-checking prescriptions, which can themselves contain prescribing mistakes. Indeed, if those errors had not been rectified by the pharmacist they could also have harmed the patient.
We work hard to prevent errors reaching patients, and yet we are the only profession who can be prosecuted for them.
A literature review in The International Journal of Pharmacy Practice (2009) into the incidence of dispensing errors suggests community pharmacists make a dispensing error with up to 3.32% of medicines dispensed, while doctors have a prescribing error rate of 5% in general practice, and 7% in hospitals. I do wonder if the discrepancy in reporting levels are due to fear of consequences, such as criminal prosecution.
As a profession it is essential to commend active reporting of incidents and near misses. At Superdrug, for instance, we strive towards an open and honest ‘no blame’ culture where pharmacists and pharmacy professionals can share their mistakes without fear.
I’d love to see a time where we are treated no differently from other healthcare professionals, with the decriminalisation of dispensing errors – although I don’t see that happening any time soon. Until parity is reached, I hope that through increased openness in reporting we can reduce patient harm.
Provided we are not negligent, and using all opportunities to learn and develop safer practices, we should be free from the risk of a criminal conviction.
Niamh is Clinical Development Manager at Superdrug. Please note, these are Niamh’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of the Superdrug business.