Elderly in high-risk group for medication harm
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

GLOBALLY, half of all preventable harm in medical care is medication-related, a quarter of which is severe or life-threatening, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

In a statement marking World Patient Safety Day on September 17, 2022, WHO emphasised the global burden of medication harm, noting that the elderly population is one of the most at-risk groups for medication harm, especially those taking multiple medications. High rates of medication-related harm are also seen in surgical care, intensive care and emergency medicine.

"Medicines are powerful tools for protecting health but medicines that are wrongly prescribed, taken incorrectly, or are of poor quality, can cause serious harm," said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director general. "Nobody should be harmed while seeking care."

Unsafe medication practices and medication errors are some of the main causes of injury and avoidable harm in health-care systems across the world. The global cost associated with medication errors has been estimated at US$42 billion annually. Medication errors happen due to systemic issues and/or human factors such as fatigue, poor environmental conditions, or staff shortages which affect prescribing, transcribing, dispensing, administration and monitoring practices. These errors can result in severe harm, disability, and even death.

World Patient Safety Day was aimed at increasing understanding among and engagement of the public, and to encourage countries to promote safety in health care. This year has a particular focus on medication safety with the slogan 'Medication Without Harm'. The campaign will also see the consolidation of the ongoing 'WHO Global Patient Safety Challenge: Medication Without Harm', with the aim of reducing avoidable medication-related harm globally.

WHO is advocating for urgent improvement in strategies to reduce medication-related harm in key risk areas. Furthermore, it is working with partners to develop a set of medication safety technical resources, including a policy brief and medication safety solutions such as medication safety for look-alike, sound-alike (LASA) medicines. LASA medicines may look or sound similar to each other, either by their generic name, or brand name. They might have similar packaging, similar-sounding names, or similar spellings.

Flaws in the systems for prescription are big contributors to medication-related harm, alongside human error. Evidence has shown that more than half of all medication harm occurs at the stage when medicines are prescribed and when they are being taken by patients, due to inadequate monitoring. The highest-risk category for medication-related harm is antibiotics, but medicines such as sedatives, anti-inflammatories and heart and blood pressure medication also pose significant risks.

WHO is calling on stakeholders to continue efforts to reduce medication-related harm; develop strategies and structures to improve medication safety at local, national, regional, and global levels; and to make a pledge to adopt the medication without harm challenge.

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