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Dispensing error defence signed by Queen and now expected next month

The Queen signed the dispensing error legislation on February 8
The Queen signed the dispensing error legislation on February 8

The long-awaited defence for pharmacists from criminal prosecution for an inadvertent dispensing error is now expected to become law next month, C+D has learned.

In documents published last week (March 6), the government programme board set up to “rebalance” medicines legislation revealed that the defence for pharmacists and their staff who commit an inadvertent error was “signed by the Queen on February 8”.

“The four UK [government] health departments are developing a ‘commencement order’, with the aim to bring the new defences into effect in April,” the board confirmed.

The national governments are also continuing to look into extending the proposals “to cover pharmacy professionals working in hospitals and other pharmacy services”, it added.

Board chair Ken Jarrold said he was “pleased to report that great strides have been made in implementing the [dispensing error defence] proposals”.

“This important development aligns pharmacy professionals with other health professions, and will support increased reporting and learning from errors,” he added.

The legal defence from criminal sanctions for pharmacists and staff was one of health and social care secretary Jeremy Hunt’s “ground-breaking” new measures to reduce harm caused by medication errors, announced at a patient safety summit last month.

This “will ensure the NHS learns from mistakes and builds a culture of openness and transparency”, the Department of Health and Social Care (DH) said at the time of Mr Hunt's announcement.

How does the government plan to change the law on dispensing errors?

A pharmacy professional or unregistered member of staff will have a defence against a criminal sanction for an inadvertent dispensing error if they meet a set of conditions. These include showing they had acted "in the course of [their] profession", that they had sold or supplied a medicine on the back of a prescription or patient group directive, and had "promptly" informed the patient about the error once discovered.

Criminal sanctions should only apply if there is proof "beyond reasonable doubt" that the pharmacist either misused their professional skills "for an improper purpose", or showed "a deliberate disregard for patient safety". The Department of Health stressed in 2015 that under this change to the law, failing to follow the pharmacy's procedures would not constitute grounds for criminal proceedings on its own.

How do you think the defence will impact the sector?

CAPT FX, Locum pharmacist

Criminalization in my opinion and experience was never a statutory problem and I think this process is all wasted effort without attitude changes.

Two weeks ago the GPHC inspector visited the branch I was covering. In private conversation he directly blamed for dispensing errors point blank. I was surprised and disappointed.

It dawned on me that without a complete review of the blame culture abound in Pharmacy all this talk of decriminalization is a waste of time. When this is done by an officer of the Regulatory body that claims errors should be blameless, it is completely baffling.

The practical reality is that most if not all error reports are actually managed statistics. The choice of whom to blame is also a highly managed process as I learnt because I was blamed without any proper investigation on the part of the inspector.

For those of my colleagues who are Locums, is it surprising that all errors are blamed on them. Most Pharmacies have no methods of establishing without prejudice the person responsible for the error. The responsibility is left to the Manager who fills in the error report and I care say none of them do it to incriminate themselves.

When reading through fitness to practice procedures , the GPHC always bring in a registrants error record as aggravating evidence irrespective of their transgressions. Does anyone expect this to inspire confidence in this sham of a system? Obviously no.

If I was the regulator of our profession I would be very worried about that which is unreported and unknown because there is so much of it. I would be honest and tell all registrants that your lives are on the line if you make errors than this open lie we live everyday as a profession.

Dodo pharmacist, Community pharmacist

At least they are not calling it decriminalisation any more. It clearly is not and Ian Kemp is 100% right.

Leon The Apothecary, Student

This is a highly important and long overdue piece of legislation.

Ian Kemp, Community pharmacist

Sorry but it is no such thing.  The offence is still on the statute book so the police can still charge you and it will be up to the judge to decide if criminal sanctions should apply. Up until now the CPS would not [ according to their own guidelines] prosecute if it was a simple error. So difference now might be that the CPS prosecute more and let  courts decide. Not necessarily an improvement. We need a change in the law not a vague defence.

Locum Pharmacist, Locum pharmacist

Agreed. I don't see how this defence will change things for the better- pharmacists will still inexplicably be charged for dispensing errors and have to defend themselves in court. 

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