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Government drive to cut GP errors hampered by lack of evidence

A Government-commissioned review has revealed that up to 2.8 million GP consultations involve a medical error every year.

But a lack of evidence over the nature and cause of GP

errors is likely to hamper the drive to improve patient safety, the researchers concluded.

They analysed 15 studies on medical errors in primary care, including four from the UK, and an unpublished study by the Medical Protection Society that found 63 per cent of claims arose from errors in

investigation and treatment.

Overall, errors occurred in 0.8 per cent of consultations, according to a report in Family Practice (June). Errors around diagnosis and subsequent prescribing were the most common type, accounting for around 26 to 78 per cent.

Diagnostic errors were also the most likely to cause major harm or trigger a hospital

admission.

Between 11 and 42 per cent of errors concerned delayed or inappropriate treatment and between 60 and 83 per cent of all errors were deemed 'preventable'.

It was hoped the findings could be used by the Government's National Patient Safety Agency as a first step towards cutting medical error, but

researchers found 'an understanding of the true frequency and nature of medical error is complicated by the different definitions and methods used in the studies'.

Dr Aneez Esmail, who conducted the review with fellow GP Dr John Sandars, said it was likely the studies had

underestimated actual error rates, adding: 'It might be a low error rate in percentage terms but when you think how many consultations go on each day, it's a high level.'

Dr Esmail, senior lecturer in general practice at the University of Manchester and a GP in the city, urged GPs to improve their safety knowledge, arguing standards were generally 'much lower' than in secondary care.

Professor Tony Avery, professor of primary health care at the University of Nottingham, said the 0.8 per cent error rate 'did not surprise' him. He added: 'There may be some underreporting.'

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