Objective: To assess the attitudes of pharmacists towards the issue of dispensing errors.
Method: A postal survey was undertaken among all Tasmanian-registered pharmacists residing in Australia. The anonymous questionnaire sought opinions on whether the risk of dispensing errors and the actual numbers of errors are increasing, the major factors contributing to the occurrence of dispensing errors, factors that can best minimize the risk of dispensing errors, the number of prescription items that one pharmacist can safely dispense in a day and whether Australia should have a regulatory maximum dispensing load, and an estimation of the number of recent errors at the pharmacist's workplace.
Results: Completed questionnaires were received from 209 pharmacists (50% response rate). Most pharmacists (82%) believed that the risk of dispensing errors is increasing. The principal contributing factors nominated were: high prescription volumes, pharmacist fatigue, pharmacist overwork, interruptions to dispensing, and similar or confusing drug names. The main factors identified as being important in reducing the risk of dispensing errors were: having mechanisms for checking dispensing procedures, having a systematic dispensing workflow, checking the original prescription (duplicate) when dispensing repeats, improving the packaging and labelling of drug products, having drug names that are distinctive, counselling patients at the time of supply, keeping one's knowledge of drugs up-to-date, avoiding interruptions, reducing workloads on pharmacists, improving doctors' handwriting, and privacy when counselling patients. Most pharmacists (72%) stated that they were aware of dispensing errors that had left the pharmacy undetected, in their place of practice during the past 6 months. The median number of such dispensing errors that they were aware of was three. A median of 150 was nominated as the maximum number of prescription items that can be safely dispensed per 9-h day (i.e. 17 items per hour) by or in the presence of one pharmacist. Most pharmacists (58%) stated that there should be a regulatory guideline for the safe dispensing load in Australia.
Conclusion: Dispensing errors are occurring in numbers well above reports to regulatory authorities or professional indemnity insurance companies, and seem to be accepted as part of practice. High prescription volumes, pharmacist fatigue and overwork appear to be important factors. The profession needs to be proactive and standards must be set appropriately high (i.e. zero error tolerance).