The government has set up a new steering group tasked with finding ways to tackle the £300 million lost to the NHS in England every year as a result of medicines wastage, at least half of which is avoidable, it says.

The new Steering Group to Improve the Use of Medicines will also identify how people can be better supported in taking their medicines as prescribed. On top of the annual £300 million medicines wastage, the cost to the NHS of people not taking their medicines properly and not getting the full benefits to their health is estimated at more than £500 million a year, say Ministers.

"We want to look at how patients can make the most of the medicines they take," said Health Minister Earl Howe, announcing the initiative. "This isn't just about saving money - most importantly, it is about making sure that patients stay well and get the best outcomes from their medicines," he added.

With over 900 million prescription items dispensed in England last year and more patients being treated at home or in the community for an ever-wider range of conditions, it is vital that the NHS tacks unnecessary wastage, say Ministers. 

"Every pound wasted is a pound that could be spent on treating patients. By reducing medicines wastage the NHS will save money that can be spent in other areas of patient care," said Earl Howe.

"Our plans for the NHS will give more frontline staff the power to innovate and deliver services that best meet the needs of their patients. Sharing decision-making with patients about their medicines use - "no decision about me without me" - will help improve their health outcomes, reduce future demands on the Service, as well as reduce medicine wastage," he added.

The Steering Group, which will be made up of experts and patient representatives, will initially report in early 2012. It will be chaired jointly by Robert Johnstone, a trustee of National Voices, the national charity coalition for health and social care, and Rob Darracott, chief executive of community pharmacy group Pharmacy Voice.

"There are lots of good ideas around for how health professionals can provide better support for patients and the public to help them use their medicines more effectively," said Mr Darracott. "What the NHS needs now is a real plan for embedding those ideas in systems that historically have been more concerned with the product than the person. As well as incentivising professionals to provide the direct support for medicines in use, that improves outcomes for patients and ensures the NHS gets best value from its investment in medicines," he added.

"We want to ensure patients are fully-informed about their treatment options and involved as equals in a shared decision-making process so that there are better decisions and improved use of medicines," noted Mr Johnstone. "Managing repeat prescribing better and providing patients with adequate and appropriate information should help to improve health outcomes and additionally reduce wastage of medicines," he said.

- In November 2010, a report commissioned by the Department of Health estimated that £300 million worth of medicines are wasted each year in England, representing around £1 in every £25 spent on primary care and community pharmaceutical and allied products use, and 0.3% of total NHS outlays.

The figure includes an estimated £90 million worth of unused prescription medicines that are retained in individuals' homes at any one time, £110 million returned to community pharmacies over the course of a year, and £50 million worth of NHS-supplied medicines that are disposed of unused by care homes, says the report, which was produced by the York Health Economics Consortium and the School of Pharmacy at the University of London.