The Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain has again called for the decriminalisation of single dispensing errors by pharmacists, and argues that such ‘offences’ should be dealt with by the new regulator of pharmacy instead.

The renewed call was spurred by the prosecution of a pharmacist earlier this month 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 played no part in the death, which, it says, was due to the patient’s underlying illness.

The judge presiding over the case agreed that the pharmacist was not factually or legally responsible for the patient’s death, but still issued a three-month jail term, suspended for 18 months, and 12 months’ supervision for dispensing the wrong medication, the RPSGB said.

“Many will question why the sentence imposed was so severe [and] there is no doubt that this prosecution will concern many pharmacists,” commented the Society’s President, Steve Churton, particularly as, he points out, all pharmacists will admit that they have made errors in dishing out drugs at some stage during their professional lives.

The RPSGB has long voiced its belief that drug dispensing errors should not be criminal offences and should be dealt with by the regulator of pharmacy instead, which, from next year, will be the newly-created General Pharmaceutical Council.

Calls for review of Medicines Act
Previous attempts to decriminalise one-time dispensing errors have not been successful, but the Society says it has recently requested that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency review the Medicines Act 1968, and in particular Section 64, in the context of dispensing errors made by pharmacists, as a matter of “priority”.

“While the RPSGB recognises that other organisations may use Section 64 of the Medicines Act 1968 to bring criminal prosecutions in serious crimes, such as counterfeiting, the RPSGB would urge a review of this section to exclude dispensing errors made by pharmacists”, it stressed.

In addition, Churton said the Society is seeking “an urgent meeting” with the Pharmacy Minister to address the issue of decriminalising dispensing errors.