Proposed legislation will safeguard pharmacy professionals from prosecution and bring an approach that is more unified with other healthcare professions, says Noel Wicks

 

It’s been a long time coming, but finally we have a legal defence from criminal sanctions for pharmacists and staff who make inadvertent dispensing errors. It’s been more commonly referred to as ‘decriminalisation’ or ‘dispensing error defence’, but whatever term you use, it represents a major change for pharmacy.

It hasn’t been easy and there has been much frustration at the time it has taken to reach this point. If we set history aside for a moment, however, and look at what this means for staff in pharmacies – and, in particular, the pharmacists – then we start to see why it’s so important.

I’ve given evidence as an expert witness in a couple of proceedings relating to dispensing errors and I have to say, nothing could possibly prepare you for what a harrowing experience this is. I say this as an observer, and can only try to imagine what it’s like for the individuals involved. It’s not something you would wish anyone to go through, let alone face a criminal sentence at the end of it.

This new defence means that under most normal inadvertent dispensing error scenarios, criminal charges would be unlikely to be brought. That doesn’t, however, mean that civil cases couldn’t or wouldn’t be. So there is still an opportunity for those affected to seek compensation and recourse through the courts if they believe someone has failed to carry out their obligations. In the current no-win-no-fee, where-there’s-blame-there’s-a-claim climate, this still represents a significant area of concern for healthcare professionals.

In addition to civil cases, the normal fitnessto- practise proceedings from the regulator would also continue and therefore changes in registration status and sanctions still apply. So while criminal prosecution, jail sentences and criminal records are now less likely, the trauma of being in front of a judge or indeed one’s peers is still very much a reality.

I’ve no doubt the order will receive some criticism that the burden of proof falls to the individual to show that any errors were inadvertently made, rather than the other way round. But despite this, I think it is still a positive move to bring pharmacy in line with the way other professions are treated when these sorts of mistakes are made.

Historically, many have complained that pharmacy seemed to have harsher rules, regulations and sanctions applied to it compared with other healthcare professions. As legislation and regulators move to a more even and unified approach, this becomes less of an issue.

All these changes help foster a more open and transparent environment where professionals find themselves being held to account in a fair way. This is absolutely essential in moving the patient safety agenda forward because, as any schoolchild will tell, you the most important lessons we learn in life come from the mistakes we make.

  • Noel Wicks is a pharmacist and independent pharmacy owner

All these changes help foster a more open and transparent environment where professionals find themselves being held to account in a fair way

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