Special report: Prescription medicines

Each year, Britons are dying in their thousands because of the side effects of prescription and over-the-counter medicines. Reported deaths are up 155 per cent in a decade – and experts are seeking new safeguards. Thousands of patients are dying each year as a result of side effects from pills prescribed by GPs and hospital doctors.

And while the number of deaths from suspected adverse reactions to prescription drugs has more than doubled in the past 10 years to 973 last year, medical experts warn that as few as one in 10 deaths and other serious complications are being reported.

Doctors' poor prescribing skills and repeated failures to recognise accurately adverse drug reactions in patients have seen deaths multiply by about two and half times since 1996. Experts are calling for a revamp of the current warning systems designed to alert doctors to potentially lethal prescription drug treatments.

They believe tens of thousands of patients suffer life-threatening, disabling or other serious reactions that need hospital treatment because of a failure to spot and report many dangerous side effects and drug interactions quickly enough.

One study estimated that the equivalent of all the beds from seven general hospitals – 5,600 places – are occupied with patients suffering from drug reactions at any one time, costing the NHS more than £450m each year. Researchers believe around 70 per cent of adverse reactions could be avoided through better training, computerised prescribing systems and staff spending more time talking and listening to patients.

The latest revelations follow The Independent on Sunday's exclusive report two months ago highlighting the dramatic rise in the number of drugs that doctors are now prescribing. The report in August showed that the NHS faced an £8.2bn bill for prescription medicines in England in 2006, as doctors issued 51 per cent more drugs than they did 10 years earlier.

But today's revelations highlight a 155 per cent rise in reported deaths from adverse reactions to prescribed and over-the-counter drugs – a far steeper increase that will shock the both medical profession and patient groups.

An international conference on drug safety which convenes in Bournemouth tomorrow will hear that "too little progress" has been made in the past 15 years in training doctors to use medications more safely.

Professor Saad Shakir, director of the Drug Safety Research Unit at Southampton University, said: "Doctors need to know how to use medications – this is the most important ethical responsibility for us. Surgeons wouldn't conduct an operation they haven't studied and trained for, and these same standards should apply to medications.

(The National Patient Safety Agency aims to put patient safety at the top of the NHS agenda.)

Source - Independent

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