Following the Clean Care is Safe Care challenge on hand hygiene in 2005 and the Safe Surgery Saves Lives challenge in 2008, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has launched its third global initiative, Global Patient Safety Challenge on Medication Safety, to halve the avoidable medication-associated harm by 2022.

The main objective is to address the weaknesses of the health system that result in medication errors and severe harm to patients. The initiative focuses on approaches to improve the way medicines are prescribed, distributed and consumed, as well as raising the awareness among the patients regarding the risks associated with improper use of medication.

At least one death a day

In the US alone, medication errors cause at least one death everyday and injure approximately 1.3 million people annually. The impact for low- and middle-income countries is deemed to be twice the impact of the high-income countries given the estimated similar rates of such events. More data will also be collected as part of the initiative plan.

"We all expect to be helped, not harmed, when we take medication," said Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General. "Apart from the human cost, medication errors place an enormous and unnecessary strain on health budgets. Preventing errors saves money and saves lives."

She added, "Every person around the world will at some point in their life take medicines to prevent or treat illness. However, medicines do sometimes cause serious harm if taken incorrectly, monitored insufficiently or as the result of an error, accident or communication problems."

Both healthcare professionals and patients can make mistakes

Medication errors are not only limited to healthcare professionals but also patients as ordering, prescribing, dispensing, preparing, administering or consuming the wrong medication or the wrong dose at the wrong time can lead to severe harm. Other factors such as health worker fatigue, overcrowding, staff shortages, poor training and the wrong information being given to patients can also result in medication errors, as Chan explained.

To ensure the right patient receives the right medication at the right dose via the right route at the right time, it is important to put systems and procedures in place. In addition, an organisational culture that routinely applies best practices and avoids blame when mistakes are made is seen as the best environment for safe care.

While most harm is said to arise from uncoordinated care especially when multiple health providers are involved, the role of pharmacists in minimising medication errors is considered crucial. Reviewing prescription and ensuring patients understand their medications are some of the ways pharmacists can help in reducing medication errors as they are trained to analyse the performance of medication processes.

A call for action

Currently, the Challenges urges the countries to take early action to address key factors, such as medicines with a high risk of harm if used improperly, patients who take multiple medications for different medical conditions, and patients going through transitions of care, to avoid medication errors.

The initiative will also focus its actions on four areas: patients and the public, healthcare professionals, medicines as products, and systems and practices of medication. It is hope to provide guidance and develop strategies, plans and tools to guarantee the safety of patients.

"Over the years, I have spoken to many people who have lost loved ones to medication-related errors," said Sir Liam Donaldson, WHO Envoy for Patient Safety.

"Their stories, their quiet dignity and their acceptance of situations that should never have arisen have moved me deeply. It is to the memories of all those who have died due to incidents of unsafe care that this Challenge should be dedicated." MIMS

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