The Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain is celebrating another major victory in the fight to decriminalise one-time dispensing errors by pharmacists and remove the threat of criminal conviction.

Chief Pharmaceutical Officer Dr Keith Ridge has confirmed In a letter to the All-Party Pharmacy Group that the Crown Prosecution Service will publish new guidelines early next year decriminalising such mistakes as an interim measure pending a review of the 1968 Medicines Act by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, which is expected to take a year or two.

The Society has long been involved in the fight against what is widely regarded as an outdated legal framework, and MPs agreed earlier this year that the Medicines Act 1968 should be amended to decriminalise the reporting of genuine errors, while upholding legal and regulatory sanctions for gross misconduct or deliberate acts that could cause harm to patients.

The organisation insists that 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.

“The Society has been campaigning to change this inappropriate law for some time and we are delighted to hear about this excellent outcome,” said RPSGB President, Steve Churton. “Through this process I’ve been truly heartened by the way in which pharmacists have rallied together to fight this cause and this milestone is a testament to everyone who made sure their voice was heard,” he added.

The move to decriminalise genuine mistakes will ensure that pharmacists are able to report and learn from dispensing errors in future without fear of criminal recourse and a prison sentence, such as that handed to pharmacy locum Elizabeth Lee after she gave a 72 year-old patient beta-blockers instead of the steroids prescribed.

Harsh ruling
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.

“This is a hugely important issue”, stressed Dr Howard Stoate MP, Chair of the All-Party Pharmacy Group, but added he is “confident that the DH is taking it seriously, and will be taking the necessary steps to ensure that pharmacists can continue doing a fantastic job delivering healthcare without this issue hanging over them”.