Authority needs to act on drug dispensing

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 November, 2008, 12:00am

The Hospital Authority has shown itself to be responsive to public concerns about the quality and safety of treatment. For example, it has moved to shore up confidence in the public hospital system by issuing regular reports on serious medical incidents and follow-up action. Human errors cannot be avoided, even in hospitals. But greater transparency reassures people that hospitals do strive to eliminate them.

It is disturbing to learn, though, that an 'accident' waiting to happen with medical treatment is to be found in our hospitals. As we report today, the Society of Hospital Pharmacists says at least four major hospitals have only half of their prescription drugs for out-patients checked by pharmacists. A survey of senior pharmacists at seven major hospitals last month showed that pharmacists verify all prescriptions for both in-patients and out-patients only at Queen Mary Hospital. For in-patients, prescription verification falls as low as 70 per cent at some hospitals.

Does it matter? It will when the authority introduces external accreditation of its institutions with a pilot scheme at three hospitals next year. According to the pharmacists' society, leading hospital accreditation bodies require either pharmacists or doctors to check all medication. It matters, of course, for other reasons also. Drug dispensing or labelling errors can mean the patient does not get the intended therapeutic benefit, or in serious cases can suffer harm.

Drug dispensers perform a valuable service but their training does not equip them as well as pharmacists to avoid and spot errors. Queen Mary Hospital's chief pharmacist says it is common for pharmacists to see errors such as wrong drug names and dosages that need to be referred to doctors. He rightly says this is an important check and balance for patient welfare and safety.

Plugging the gap in pharmaceutical services will impose an extra strain on the authority's hard-pressed budget. But medication plays an ever-growing role in enabling patients to live a normal life in the community and keeping them out of hospital. It would therefore be money well spent, not to mention being in the best interests of patients.