An agreement that will remove the threat of imprisonment from pharmacists who report dispensing errors has been brokered by the All Party Parliamentary Pharmacy Group, led by Labour MP for Dartford, Dr Howard Stoate. _

The agreement was reached at a meeting in Westminster held by the Group to discuss the implications of a recent case in which a community pharmacist was given a suspended prison sentence after reporting a dispensing error. Experts warn that the case has implications for all healthcare professionals.
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If implemented, the agreement – which was supported by representatives of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (RPSGB), the Pharmacists Defence Association, the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) and the Department of Health - will ensure that pharmacists are able to report and learn from dispensing errors in future without fear of criminal conviction and a prison sentence.

_“The meeting demonstrated that there is consensus among all parties that the current legal framework governing dispensing errors is out of date, and does not work in the best interests of patient safety,” said Dr Stoate. “A regime that strikes fear into pharmacists and discourages them from reporting errors is bad for patients and for the profession. We have agreement on what’s needed, which is good, but now we must see swift moves to make the changes we agreed.”
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During the meeting the Chief Pharmaceutical Officer, Dr Keith Ridge, agreed that the Medicines Act 1968 should be amended to decriminalise the reporting of genuine errors, while maintaining legal and regulatory sanction against gross misconduct or deliberate acts likely to cause harm to patients. This will be done as part of the MHRA’s review of the Act, which is expected to take one or two years. Dr Ridge also proposed an interim arrangement be put in place preventing prosecutions from taking place while this review is being completed. These proposals were accepted by the meeting.

Earlier this week the RPSGB, which has long argued for reform, welcomed the Department's pledge to amend the Act “at the earliest opportunity,” and on June 23, the Society’s Chlltern branch held a meeting on the issue in Westminster at which Labour MP Mark Todd, Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb and Conservative Lord Howe all called for the law to be changed. However, they warned that any such developments have to be communicated to the public with care, in order to avoid giving the impression that consumer protections are being weakened.

By yesterday (June 24), 137 MPs across all parties had signed a parliamentary Early Day Motion on the issue, tabled on June 1 by Dr Stoate and Liberal Democrats Sandra Gidley and Bob Russell.

The EDM (No 1561) states, among other things, that: “this House recognises that community pharmacists are on the front line in providing vital services to NHS patients in a high-pressure environment; notes that under the Medicines Act 1968 pharmacists who make an error while dispensing medicines are regularly tried for a criminal offence; is concerned that this discourages healthcare professionals who fear being criminalised from reporting dispensing errors; is further concerned that this limits opportunities to record mistakes and to learn from these errors.”

Amended legislation must offer “a more proportionate response with the flexibility to recognise a genuine single dispensing error,” the EDM adds.

Dr Stoate has now written to the Health Minister, Mike O’Brien, to inform him of the agreement reached during the meeting and to ask him to implement its key points as quickly as possible. “This issue is too important for weeks and months to slip by without any progress,” he said.