NHS medication errors could be playing a role in up to 22,000 patients deaths every year, suggest findings from a new study.

Researchers from the Universities of York, Manchester and Sheffield found that an estimated 237 million medication errors occur within the NHS every year, and that an estimated 712 deaths directly result from avoidable adverse drug reactions (ADRs).

However, ADRs could be a contributory factor to between 1,700 and 22,303 deaths a year, they believe. In addition, the researchers estimate the cost implications of avoidable ADRs to be around £98.5 million per year, but note this could be significantly higher.

“Although these error rates may look high, there is no evidence suggesting they differ markedly from those in other high-income countries,” said Professor of Health Economics at the University of York, Mark Sculpher, commenting on the findings.

“Almost three in four errors would never harm patients and some may be picked up before they reach the patients, but more research is needed to understand just how many that is.”

“What this report is showing us is that we need better linking of information across the NHS to help find more ways of preventing medication errors,” noted Rachel Elliott, Professor of Health Economics from The University of Manchester.

Health and social care secretary Jeremy Hunt is expected to unveil what measures are being undertaken to reduce medication errors at the Global Patient Safety summit in London later today, including a new system for tracking GP prescribing errors and the wider launch of electronic prescribing systems.

“GPs already use systems designed to help them prescribe safely, but the College would welcome any additional resources or technology that will help to further minimise the risks of making a medication error…Systems better linking prescribing data in primary care to hospital admissions, sound like a particularly good and necessary step forward,” said Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs.

“What is essential, is that highlighting that prescribing errors do occasionally happen is not used to admonish hardworking NHS staff - including GPs - for making genuine mistakes, but to address the root cause, and in general practice that is intense resource and workforce pressures, meaning that workloads and working hours are often unsafe for GPs and our teams.”

“GP practices are facing increasing demand on their services, with patients presenting with increasingly complex health problems, so the Government needs to continue to work with us to establish a workforce strategy including enabling practices to expand their multi-disciplinary team to help meet patients' needs,” added BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey.

“This includes the greater involvement of pharmacists working in, or linked to, practices and surgeries."