Patients are nearly three times more likely to be given the wrong medicines as a result of an error in their hospital discharge letter if the information is compiled electronically, according to new research from the University of East Anglia and Basildon and Thurrock University Hospitals NHS Trust.

In a paper presented today at a conference at the University of East Anglia, clinical pharmacist Keshma Patel will outline early research on two wards indicating problems with electronic discharge letters.

Her study into error rates before and after the introduction of electronic letters showed that 24% of the 80 patients in her study had at least one drug error in their hand-written letter from the hospital.

They were prescribed on average eight drugs each. When it came to incorporating information from the hand-written letter into the GP record, the error rate rose to 42% of patients having at least one error.

She expected the introduction of an electronic system to reduce the error rate. But in fact, she found they nearly trebled.

In a statement issued by the university, she said: “The main problem is doctors selecting the wrong medicine from drop down lists, which were not available to them in the days of hand written discharge letters.”

The trust refused to allow Patel to discuss her unpublished research further, saying: “It is a very small scale study carried out on just two wards here at an early stage of an in-house project. It’s not something that can be extrapolated wider and it would be wrong to do so.”

Basildon and Thurrock began to roll out an Electronic Medical Records system in January 2011, which includes electronic discharge functionality.

The research is likely to prove controversial as safety has been one of the big selling points for electronic discharge summary systems.