WHO launches global initiative to cut medication errors by half

A pharmacy used to illustrate the story
A pharmacy used to illustrate the story

The World Health Organisation has launched a global initiative to reduce harm associated with medication by 50 per cent over the next five years.

The Global Patient Safety Challenge on medication safety initiative aims to address the weaknesses in health systems that lead to medication errors and the severe harm that results.

The challenge lays out ways to improve the way medicines are prescribed, distributed and consumed, and increases awareness among patients about the risks associated with the improper use of medication.

According to a press release by the global agency, medication errors cause at least one death every day and injure approximately 1.3 million people annually in the United States of America alone.

“Low and middle-income countries are estimated to have similar rates of medication-related adverse events to high-income countries and the impact is about twice as much in terms of the number of years of healthy life lost and many countries lack good data, which will be gathered as part of the initiative”, the agency stated.

It is WHO’s third global patient safety challenge, following the Clean Care is Safe Care challenge on hand hygiene in 2005 and the Safe Surgery Saves Lives challenge in 2008.

Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, said globally, the cost associated with medication errors has been estimated at US$ 42 billion annually or almost one per cent of total global health expenditure.

“We all expect to be helped, not harmed, when we take medication because every person around the world will at some point in their life take medicines to prevent or treat illness.

“However, medicines do sometimes cause serious harm if taken incorrectly, monitored insufficiently or as the result of an error, accident or communication problems. Apart from the human cost, medication errors place an enormous and unnecessary strain on health budgets. Preventing errors saves money and saves lives,” Ms. Chan said.

The WHO Director-General said both health workers and patients can make mistakes that result in severe harm, such as ordering, prescribing, dispensing, preparing, administering or consuming the wrong medication or the wrong dose at the wrong time. She, however, stressed that all medication errors are potentially avoidable.

“Preventing errors and the harm that results requires putting systems and procedures in place to ensure the right patient receives the right medication at the right dose via the right route at the right time”, she said.

The health agency said medication errors can be caused by health worker fatigue, overcrowding, staff shortages, poor training and the wrong information being given to patients, among other reasons.

“Most harm arises from systems failures in the way care is organized and coordinated, especially when multiple health providers are involved in a patient’s care. Any one of these, or a combination, can affect the prescribing, dispensing, consumption, and monitoring of medications, which can result in severe harm, disability and even death”, Ms. Chan said.

Liam Donaldson, WHO’s envoy for Patient Safety, said the challenge call on countries to take early priority action to reduce medication error.

“Over the years, I have spoken to many people who have lost loved ones to medication-related errors and their stories, their quiet dignity and their acceptance of situations that should never have arisen have moved me deeply”, he said.

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“It is to the memories of all those who have died due to incidents of unsafe care that this Challenge should be dedicated. There is a need for an organisational culture that routinely implements best practices and that avoids blame when mistakes are made,” he stressed.

He said the challenge will address key factors, including medicines with a high risk of harm if used improperly; patients who take multiple medications for different diseases and conditions; and patients going through transitions of care, in order to reduce medication errors and harm to patients.

“The actions planned in the Challenge will be focused on four areas: patients and the public; health care professionals; medicines as products; and systems and practices of medication with the aim to make improvements in each stage of the medication use process including prescribing, dispensing, administering, monitoring and use,” he said.

WHO said it aims to provide guidance and develop strategies, plans and tools to ensure that the medication process has the safety of patients at its core, in all health care facilities.

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