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Legal claims for GP medication errors ‘up 60%’

Legal claims against GPs for medication errors have risen 60% since 2008, according to medical defence experts.

The Medical Defence Union reviewed 371 claims filed and 408 advice files in the years between 2008 and 2012. Over the time period, the number of files opened increased by 59% from 135 in 2008 to 215 in 2012, the MDU found.

Although the MDU said this was likely driven by an increase in GPs’ prescribing workloads, it said there were a range of things GPs can do to reduce the risk of claims for medication errors.

It said most of the claims where the patient was successful in their claims against GPs were in relation to wrong or inappropriate drugs being prescribed, problems with long-term administration of medication, dose errors and prescribing to a patient with a known allergy.

It advised GPs to ensure they are aware of current BNF, NICE and GMC guidance on prescribing, always check for contrainidications of drugs and to always ask when unsure. GPs should also always go over the patient’s medical history and check against any over-the-counter drugs the patients may be taking.

Out of the 371 actual claims, 109 were successfully defended or discontinued, 86 were settled and 177 remained active.

The MDU paid out £5 million in compensation over the time period and £400,000 in legal costs. The largest payout on behalf of a GP was £1.2 million to a patient who was left severely disabled after a failure to monitor levels of a long-term prescription for lithium, resulting in lithium toxicity, while the average compensation awarded to successful claimaints came in a just over £58,000.

MDU medico-legal adviser Dr Caroline Fryar commented: ‘Most medications are prescribed safely and appropriately by GPs, and even when errors do occur, they may not result in harm to the patient. However, medication errors are one of the main reasons for claims settled by the MDU on behalf of GPs.’

‘GPs are responsible for prescribing and monitoring increasingly complex drug regimes for patients following their discharge from hospital and for an ageing population. This means they need be aware of possible harmful drug interactions and whether a particular medication is contraindicated. It’s also important to remember that GPs bear professional responsibility not only for the prescriptions they sign, but also for the prescribing systems they run within their practice, such as repeat prescribing processes. So it’s important to have robust procedures in place.’

‘We hope our analysis and advice will help GPs and practice staff avoid some of the common prescribing problems that arise as well as helping practices to respond quickly to medication incidents and learn from them to prevent future errors.’

Earlier this year, Pulse reported that GPs are ‘more likely to be sued than ever before’, based on statistics from the Medical Protection Society.