Poorly implemented ePMA (electronic prescribing and medicines administration) systems can result in potentially fatal medication errors, our new report warns today.

The report comes after we looked at the case of 75-year old Ann Midson, who was left taking two powerful blood thinning medications after a mix-up at her local hospital where she was receiving treatment whilst suffering from incurable cancer.

Ann sadly died from her cancer 18 days after being discharged and the error with her medication was only picked up three days before. This led to our investigation to question why this happened, even when the hospital had an ePMA system in place.

Incomplete use of ePMA systems

Our report highlights that many NHS trusts across England are taking up this technology as they reduce medication errors, but that incomplete use of e-systems could create further risks to patient safety.

The investigation found that often all the functions of ePMA systems aren’t being used and that staff switch between using paper record and digital records, increasing the likelihood of crucial information being missed.

Lack of information sharing

Ann’s case also highlighted the routine lack of information sharing between NHS services, such as GP surgeries and pharmacies. She had been taking one blood thinning medication on admission. This was stopped during her time at the hospital, but this message was not relayed to her local pharmacy and she continued to take both after leaving hospital.

Seven-day pharmacy service

The report also identifies that the availability of a seven-day hospital pharmacy service is crucial to support a digital system and pick up any errors quickly. The length of time it took in Ann’s case had a huge effect on both her and her family.

Family view

Ann’s daughter said: “Not only were we grieving the loss of mum but also that she had to deal with the stress and upset of this towards the end of her life. She had to spend a lot of time within different parts of the NHS and all we ever wanted was for her to get the best possible care at every stage.

“I am glad HSIB decided to investigate this topic using mum’s case - it was reassuring to know that her experiences wouldn’t be lost, and her story would be told. Knowing that this may prevent similar incidents happening to other families is the best legacy for my wonderful mum to leave and what she would have wanted.”

The report sets out several recommendations around better information sharing and communication, improving medication messaging and alerts to ensure the safe discharge of patients.

HSIB view

Dr Stephen Drage, Director of Investigations at HSIB and intensive care consultant says: “ePMA systems are a positive step for the NHS – research shows if implemented well they can reduce medication errors by 50%. Our report is highlighting the risks if e-prescribing is not fully integrated and doesn’t create the whole picture of the patient’s medication needs from when they arrive to when they return home. The more efficient the system, the better the communication is with the patients, families and between NHS services.

“We recognise the challenges the NHS faces in implementing e-prescribing, but we also know how terrible the experience was for both Ann and her family. The safety recommendations we’ve made are asking for national bodies to provide trusts with a blueprint for what a good system and implementation should look like. This will mean ePMA systems are used to their full benefit, reducing the risk of serious harm to patients.”

Read the report

For more information, including the safety recommendations in full, download and read the ‘electronic prescribing and medicines administration systems and safe discharge’ report.