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Labour MP: Dispensing errors defence ‘does not go far enough’

Julie Cooper, MP for Burnley: Consider further legislation to ensure inadvertent errors are totally decriminalised
Julie Cooper, MP for Burnley: Consider further legislation to ensure inadvertent errors are totally decriminalised

The draft legal defence for dispensing errors “does not go far enough” and means pharmacists “will still not be on a level playing field”, a Labour MP has said.

Speaking at a debate in parliament on the draft dispensing errors defence yesterday (December 4), Julie Cooper said that although the Labour party believes the change to the law is a “step in the right direction”, the pharmacy minister should “consider further legislation to ensure that inadvertent errors are totally decriminalised”.

Echoing concerns made by lawyer Noel Wardle to C+D last week, Ms Cooper said pharmacists and staff "will still face prosecution under other provisions of the Medicines Act 1968".

The new defences – which was laid before parliament last month – includes showing that the pharmacist or member of staff 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", according to the document.

The Department of Health expects the legislation will come into force early next year, subject to parliamentary approval,

“Formal requirement” to report errors

Ms Cooper also told MPs present at the debate that there is "an omission" in the proposed legislation.

Although increased reporting of dispensing errors is "anticipated" once the defence is made law, she stressed there is "no formal requirement" for these to be reported.

"It is reliant upon goodwill. I am sure that many pharmacists and dispensary technicians will want to take it upon themselves to improve their existing protocols so that errors cannot reoccur," she said.

Her concern was echoed by Philippa Whitford, SNP MP for Central Ayrshire, who argued that the “obligation to report should be formalised, rather than pharmacists just having to contact the patient”.

“That changes a defensive reason to hide errors into a reason to report errors, but it really needs to happen through a reporting system,” Dr Whitford said.

In response, pharmacy minister Steve Brine said the government is already working with the General Pharmaceutical Council and professional bodies to ensure pharmacy professionals are supported in the implementation of the defence.

“An absolutely critical part of that is making sure that they report errors, because if they do not, this will all be somewhat wasted,” Mr Brine said.

“It seeks to ensure that we collect information on errors that do occur and think hard about how they can be prevented in the future,” he added.

Will you increase error reporting if the defence comes into force?

Locum Pharmacist, Locum pharmacist

As pharmacists we will all make dispensing errors, hopefully minor with zero impact on patients, and it is wholly unaceptable for us to receive criminal convictions for doing so. Referral to the GPhC and professional sanctions are the best way to deal with such matters rather than to brand the whole profession as criminals. Any one of us could be in Martin White's and other pharmacists position who received criminal convictions for simply doing their job.

The proposed legislation is a weak, half-hearted attempt to appease pharmacists and give us a false sense of security. Dispensing errors will still be criminal and the onus will be on us to defend ourselves to avoid receiving a criminal record or worse. This is not good enough- will we have to wait several more years for them to do the right thing and decriminalise dispensing errors??

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