We all have a role to play to ensure medicines do not cause harm

We have a role to play in the responsible and safe use of medications. [iStockphoto]

In May 2019, the United Nations passed a resolution recognising patient safety as a global health priority and made September 17 World Patient Safety Day.

This day brings together healthcare workers, leaders, policymakers, and members of the public to recognise the efforts required and to commit to ensuring patient safety.

This year’s celebrations focused on the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) patient safety challenge of medication without harm which was launched in 2017. Previous themes include ‘Speak up for Patient Safety’ in 2019, ‘Speak up for health worker safety’ in 2020, and ‘Safe maternal and new-born care’ in 2021.

Medication without harm focuses on providing safe medicines and appropriate handling by healthcare professionals as well as patients and the public from the point of receiving the medicines to administration and monitoring of effects.

It is based on the WHO’s philosophy that patient safety can be greatly improved by reducing the frequency and impact of errors and harm incidents through changes to existing health systems.

It would be difficult to find anyone in Kenya who has not used medication. These substances, which much of the public knows little about, are often dispensed over the counter, with many of them requiring nothing more than money to cover their costs.

Medicines work in a variety of ways due to the wide range of ailments they treat. Some replace deficient substances, while others inhibit or increase chemical production, and still others alter organ function. Because of their constituent compounds, medicines rarely have a single impact.

Take, for example, aspirin, an over-the-counter pain reliever. It belongs to a class of medications known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which are commonly used to treat pain.

Aspirin works by inhibiting the production of prostaglandins, which are involved in the healing of injuries and illnesses, thereby reducing mild inflammation and pain.

However, aspirin acts on platelets and prevents blood clots. As a result, if used incorrectly, it can cause severe bleeding that is difficult to control without additional medical interventions.

There have been numerous documented cases of patients being put at risk by being prescribed aspirin despite having contraindications to the drug, either through carelessness or through inadequate information.

Because of the ease of access, some patients who are at high risk of uncontrolled bleeding have self-prescribed and administered aspirin, with disastrous results.

Consider how much worse the effects of taking the wrong medication can become as their potency increases. The Pharmacy and Poisons Board aims to ensure that only safe medicines are given to the public, that highly toxic or addictive medications are carefully controlled and that only qualified health care workers are involved in handling medication.

However, there are still loopholes with some unscrupulous persons providing substandard and falsified medication and the public gaining access to restricted medications without a prescription.

It is imperative that we realise the role we can each play for responsible and safe use of medications. One harm event is one too many.