GP drug blunders hit 40% of the elderly: Patients given unnecessary pills and wrong doses
Patients even prescribed drugs to which they were allergic, in rare cases
07:15 GMT, 2 May 2012
Hundreds of thousands of elderly patients are being wrongly prescribed drugs by their GPs, a study warns today.
The pioneering research found that four in ten of those aged over 75 on medication had been affected by a medical blunder in the last year.
This included being given unnecessary drugs or the wrong dose. Some were also not given crucial treatments alongside their medicine to protect against side-effects.
Four in ten of those over 75 on medication had been affected by a medical blunder in the past 12 months
Researchers even discovered patients who were prescribed drugs to which they were allergic, although this was rare.
In the first study of its kind, University of Nottingham academics examined the records of 1,777 patients of all ages in 15 surgeries in England to look for errors.
They found one in 20 of the prescriptions handed out to all patients in the last year contained a mistake ranging from the minor to more serious. But the elderly, classed as the over-75s, were twice as likely to be given incorrect medication.
This is because they tend to be taking many more medications than younger age groups.
GPs were also found to be failing to carry out proper checks to ensure that strong drugs were not causing harmful side-effects.
In some cases, patients were given the blood-thinning drug warfarin for heart disease without having regular blood tests to check they were not likely to suffer severe bleeds.
Study leader Professor Tony Avery blamed the mistakes on GPs not properly being trained to prescribe certain drugs, being distracted by patients during consultations and technical glitches on computer systems.
‘GPs work under considerable time pressure with frequent distractions and interruptions,’ he said.
‘Often prescribing is squeezed at the end of a consultation. Few prescriptions were associated with significant risks to patients but it’s important we do everything we can to avoid all errors.’
Professor Avery, an expert in primary health care, stressed that only a handful of errors were likely to be putting patients at ‘significant risk’.
In one example in the study, funded by the General Medical Council, the team came across a patient given penicillin even though they were allergic to the drug.
The 62-year-old did not suffer a severe reaction but the mistake could have been fatal.
In another case, an elderly patient was rushed to hospital with bleeding in the stomach caused by painkillers prescribed by their GP. The doctor had not given the person the necessary drugs to prevent this side-effect.
Many other elderly patients were given warfarin for heart disease without having crucial checks to ensure that their blood was properly clotting.
Some 42 per cent of mistakes were classed as ‘minor’, which included patients not being given proper instructions on when to take drugs.
Another 54 were ‘moderate’, which often included patients being given ibuprofen or other painkillers without medication to prevent stomach bleeds. The remaining 4 per cent were classified as ‘serious’.
Professor Sir Peter Rubin, chairman of the GMC, said: ‘GPs are typically very busy, so we have to ensure they can give prescribing the priority it needs.
‘Using effective computer systems to ensure potential errors are flagged and patients are monitored correctly is very important to minimise errors.
‘Doctors and patients could also benefit from greater involvement from pharmacists in supporting prescribing and monitoring.’