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Inaccurate claims about dispensing error rates are unacceptable

The news that Keith Ridge, chief pharmaceutical officer for England, has admitted that he misled the All-Party Pharmacy Group (APPG) by overstating the accuracy of currently available technology driven dispensing systems is shocking.

Ridge cited evidence from literature that the error rate in community pharmacy in the UK “is around 3%” compared to large-scale automated dispensing facilities in Sweden, which he said had an error rate of 0.00001%. However, the error rate for Sweden turned out to be almost double the rate Ridge quoted.

The claim that the current level of errors by pharmacists and their staff is around 3% seems to still stand unless a statement has subsequently issued. Those of us who actually dispense prescriptions are bemused by this contention. Our pharmacy group dispenses in excess of one million prescriptions per year and, if we were having to deal with 30,000 errors a year, I think I would be aware.

Pharmacy is a science-based profession that needs to rely on evidence before making decisions and this is particularly pertinent when dealing with the health and safety of our patients. Pharmacists need to have critical appraisal skills and it would be expected that the most senior pharmacist in the land, whose job is to advise the Department of Health on pharmacy matters, had demonstrated such skills. It is also reasonable to assume that he was capable of harnessing them appropriately. Ridge has now admitted that the UK community pharmacy data error rate of “around 3%” that he quoted was based on observational data.

At the time that Ridge was misleading the APPG, he was also casting a slur by stating that pharmacists have a “professional obligation” to adopt automated dispensing processes, implying that we are unprofessional in not doing so. The current systems in place, of which we operate at one of our outlets, are not good enough although, as by his own reckoning, they only do “tens of prescriptions per hour” as opposed to “hundreds per minute”.

This homily was delivered on 16 March 2016, two months after the Pharmacy2U debacle when the Department of Health had written to every pharmacy in England requesting help in extracting compromised patients from the mess inflicted on them by a major pharmacy distributor that is heavily reliant on technology; technology similar to the type Ridge wants community pharmacy to adopt as a “professional obligation”.

His position is now untenable. He should do the decent thing and resign. However, no one in the current climate believes that will happen.

We have the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC), the UK pharmacy regulator, to ensure that registrants conduct themselves in a fit and proper way, interpreting and applying evidence in their practice. Clearly Ridge has not acted in a fit and proper manner on this subject. He is the most influential pharmacist in England but has let down himself as a professional. It would be sad were it not for the impact this man’s policies are having on pharmacy in England. The practising of pharmacy has consequences for patients and anyone not appraising evidence before acting on the scale that Ridge operates at has to be held accountable.

I call on the GPhC to investigate Ridge’s conduct and to decide whether he is currently fit to practise with the attendant action that would be expected should any registrant act in such a dangerous, reckless and cavalier manner in the conduct of their professional duties.

Tony Schofield

Sunderland

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2016.20201280

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