Findings of a new study suggest that too many patients in the UK are being prescribed high-risk drugs that could potentially cause them harm, and reveals that GP prescribing between practices remains significantly varied.

According to the research paper, published in the British Medical Journal online, thousands of patients in Scotland particularly vulnerable to side effects from medicines were dished out 'high-risk' drugs by their GPs.

In a review of data from 315 Scottish practices catering for 1.76 million patients, 14% of those judged to be vulnerable to side effects - because of factors such as age, illness and other medications - were given one or more high-risk medications by their family doctor.

While in some cases these prescriptions may have been appropriate because the benefits were considered to outweigh the risks, the authors stress that previous studies have shown side effects account for 6.5% of all hospital admissions, "over half of which are judged to be preventable”, indicating that a greater degree of caution needs to be exercised when prescribing in general practice.

They researchers also note that there were significant variations in prescribing practices between the GP surgeries surveyed, suggesting there is considerable room for improving the safety of prescribing in primary care, which not only has important implications for patients but could also save on National Health Service cash and resources.

But they stress that further work is needed to better explore the safety of GP prescribing, and in particular whether practice rates of high-risk prescribing are down to a small number of individuals or because of wider practice organisation and culture.

According to Alex MacKinnon, Director for Scotland at the Royal Pharmacy Society, the research highlights the need for more work in this area. “Pharmacists are committed to improving medicines safety [and] we are currently looking at how Adverse Drug Reactions are reported and how risk can be reduced, especially for patients with multiple conditions", he said.