Page last updated at 10:28 GMT, Tuesday, 16 June 2009 11:28 UK

Pharmacists attack 'unfair law'

By Yvonne Murray
BBC News

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Raj Patel, of Mount Elgon Pharmacy in Wimbledon, explains the pressures pharmacists are under

Pharmacists are calling for a change in the law, which criminalises them for dispensing the wrong drug.

In April, locum pharmacist Elizabeth Lee, was prosecuted under the 1968 Medicines Act for giving a patient beta-blockers instead of steroids.

The patient, Carmel Sheller, 72, from Windsor, later died in hospital.

The judge found Mrs Lee bore no "legal or factual" responsibility for Mrs Sheller's death but passed a three-month suspended prison sentence.

There is a danger that this will force errors underground
David Pruce
Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain

He said it was to "mark the gravity of the offence."

Pharmacists are worried that this has set a precedent for prosecutions of even one-off minor errors.

The all-party pharmacy group will meet in the House of Commons on Tuesday to investigate the impact of the Elizabeth Lee case on community pharmacists.

The chairman, Howard Stoate MP, has tabled an Early Day Motion calling for a change in the law.

Simple human error

Raj Patel talks about a near miss

He said: "I don't think anybody quite appreciated what could happen to a pharmacist who made a simple human error just on one occasion and is automatically criminalised by the current law.

"As far as I'm aware there are no other professional groups, certainly within the NHS to which that applies.

"It is a unique situation and I think one that is overdue for reform."

In the wake of the Elizabeth Lee case, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain carried out a survey which found that almost half the pharmacists questioned would reassess whether they would record dispensing errors in an error log.

David Pruce, director of policy, said: "It is an understandable reaction because pharmacists would be incriminating themselves.

"But we're concerned about the effect on patient safety.

"There is a danger that this will force errors underground.

"We want pharmacists to learn from any mistakes, and help prevent further mistakes."

Overworked

Elizabeth Lee's legal team said that she had been overworked at the Tesco pharmacy in Windsor.

We don't even get time for a tea break in most pharmacies
Allan Melzack
Pharmacist

But a spokesman for Tesco said: "The shift length was not relevant to this dispensing error.

"In this case, the locum pharmacist started work at 9am and the dispensing error took place around lunchtime.

"The pharmacist had staff working with her offering support at all times."

However, pharmacists say that hours have lengthened and the level of stress has increased across the profession.

In England and Wales, they dispense an average of 2 million prescriptions a day and because of the ageing population, the volume grows each year.

In addition, pharmacists are taking on more and more services such as diabetes testing and Medication Use Reviews.

Allan Melzack, a pharmacist in Manchester, said: "Our professional leaders have pleaded for more work for pharmacists to "take the load off the GPs" and this has been granted.

"Unfortunately we don't get the remuneration that GPs get.

"A typical wage for a Pharmacy manager is around £40,000 while a typical wage for a GP is over £100,000.

"They get lunch breaks while we don't even get time for a tea break in most pharmacies.

"So pharmacists are working harder than ever and relatively earning less than they used to."

Breaking point

Max Gosney, news editor of Chemist and Druggist magazine said the survey of the profession they had carried out suggested pharmacists were approaching breaking point.

He said: "A lot of people were having difficultly sleeping and they were feeling pressured by management, intimidated by customers and even 4% said they had contemplated suicide as a result of the stress they were under."

More than 12,000 pharmacists have signed a petition calling for the law to be repealed.

For a profession that considers itself quiet and retiring in the main, the sentencing of one of their colleagues for dispensing error has stirred them to action.

Yvonne Murray will report on this issue on Radio 4's PM programme at 1700 BST on Tuesday.



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