Medication errors

Prescribed medicine is the most common treatment in the NHS. GPs in England issue more than 660 million prescriptions every year and there are an estimated 200 million prescriptions in hospitals (Smith, 2004). Some adverse reactions are unpredictable and unavoidable, but medication errors, including mistakes or lapses, are always avoidable.

How have medication errors causing severe harm or death changed over time?

Over time, the rate of reported medication errors which resulted in severe harm or death has been declining in the NHS. Between 2008 and 2013 the rate more than halved, from 0.77 to 0.34 per 100,000 population. This increased slightly in 2014 to 0.37. As with all indicators drawn from incident reporting the observed rates will be influenced by the general reporting level.

Updated August 2016.

How do reported medication safety incidents change in acute and mental health trusts over time?

The number of incidents in both acute and mental health trusts has been increasing over time. In acute trusts, there was an average of 40.6 incidents reported per 10,000 bed days from April 2014 to September 2015. In mental health trusts it was 31.6 per 10,000 bed days.

However, as the first chart shows there has been a decline in the rate of incidents that cause severe harm or death. So while the rate of incidents reported is increasing, it appears that there are fewer incidents that result in severe harm or death. Some incidents may be classified as less severe or a combination of both.

Updated August 2016.

About this data

NHS organisations are required to report patient safety incidents to the National Reporting and Learning System.

The NRLS was established in late 2003 as a voluntary scheme for reporting patient safety incidents, and therefore it does not provide the definitive number of patient safety incidents occurring in the NHS. This information is used to improve the safety and quality of patient care through reporting, analysing and disseminating the lessons of adverse events and 'near misses' involving NHS patients. Information captured on the type of incident and the degree of harm enables the tracking of serious errors involving medicines.

Rates of medication error were re-calculated in April 2015 and the previous reporting periods are not shown here as they are incomparable.

For more information see National Reporting and Learning System.

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