The Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain is celebrating a major victory in its campaign to decriminalise single medication errors after the Department of Health promised to amend the Medicines Act 1968 “at the earliest opportunity”.

The Society has long argued that legislation automatically criminalising any dispensing error is unjust and not in line with that governing other means of healthcare provision, and that single ‘offences’ should be dealt with by the new regulator of pharmacy – the General Pharmaceutical Council – instead of the courts.

Earlier this year the issue was brought to the fore again after a pharmacist was prosecuted for giving a 72 year-old patient beta-blockers instead of the steroids prescribed. The patient died just three days after taking the beta-blockers, but the pathologist’s report concluded that this actually played no part in the death.

The presiding judge agreed that the pharmacist was not factually or legally responsible for the patient’s death, but still issued what was considered to be a fairly harsh sentence involving a three-month jail term, suspended for 18 months, and 12 months’ supervision for dispensing the wrong medication.

“No pharmacist should have to endure prosecution for genuine human error,” stressed RPSGB President Steve Churton, particularly as all pharmacists will make dispending errors at some stage during their professional lives and “the open reporting of errors is an essential activity in improving patient safety”.

Interim prosecution guidelines
The DH has now agreed to amend the Medicines Act 1968 accordingly but the process could take up to two years to compete, the RPSGB said. In the meantime, interim guidelines will be developed for Crown Prosecution Officers to avoid the inappropriate prosecution of pharmacists until changes to the Act are made.

The Society says it will now work with the DH and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency “to deliver a workable alternative to the existing law”, and has also promised to keep “a close eye” on interim developments with the Crown Prosecution Service.