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Prescribing analysis and audit

Medical Professionals

Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find one of our health articles more useful.

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Why prescription assessment?

The General Medical Council (GMC) good medical practice guidelines emphasise the need for appraisal and continuing personal development in general practice, and it is now an essential part of revalidation.1

Prescribing is the most common intervention in the NHS across all sectors, and after staffing costs, accounts for the second highest area of NHS expenditure. Prescribing makes up a large portion of a GP's clinical care of a patient and is the most common therapeutic approach offered to patients.

Studies find a high proportion of errors in primary care prescribing, although serious errors are unusual. A 2012 study in England commissioned by the GMC found errors in almost 5% of all prescriptions.2

Factors identified as being associated with a higher risk of errors were patient age below 15 or over 65 and a high number of medication items prescribed. Other factors thought to contribute to errors include the repeat prescribing system, the interface between hospital and GP, communication and patient adherence.

These factors together with variable efficacy may mean many patients do not achieve optimum benefit from their medication. It is believed that electronic prescribing systems are improving prescribing safety and reducing errors.3

Regarding the causes of prescribing errors, a study in 2013 found the potential causes included:4

  • The prescriber: the prescriber's therapeutic training, drug knowledge and experience, knowledge of the patient, perception of risk, and their physical and emotional health.

  • The patient: the patient's characteristics and the complexity of the individual clinical case.

  • The team: the importance of feeling comfortable within the practice team, as well as the safety implications of GPs signing prescriptions generated by nurses when they had not seen the patient for themselves.

  • The working environment: with its extensive workload, time pressures, and interruptions.

  • The computer system: computer-related issues associated with mis-selecting drugs from electronic pick-lists and overriding alerts.

  • The primary-secondary care interface: communication problems.

Prescribing audits are carried out continually, at national, organisation, practice and individual level. Every GP needs to demonstrate that they prescribe effectively and safely, by regularly analysing and changing their practice where necessary. See also Audit and Audit Cycle.

Benefits include:

  • Improving patient safety.

  • Developing a Personal Learning Plan for self-appraisal and the appraisal process.5 6

  • Fulfilling many criteria in different areas of the Quality and Outcomes Framework (QOF).

  • Reducing prescribing costs by reducing unnecessary prescriptions (eg, antibiotics), making most efficient use of therapeutic agents, encouraging generic prescriptions within the bounds of bioavailability and reducing polypharmacy.7 8

  • Improving patient care and management and reducing noncompliance and waste. The cost of unused prescription medicines in community and primary care in England was estimated to be around £300 million in 2009.9

Getting started

Prescribing analysis and cost tabulation (PACT) data

As each GP is clinically and legally responsible for their own actions, it is important to consider your own prescribing. PACT data may be helpful in prescribing analysis. PACT is a series of reports which tells GPs what they have prescribed and how much their prescribing has cost.

Until 2007, these were a series of hard copies, circulated regularly to GPs, but are now produced by NHS Prescribing Services in electronic web-based format (ePACT). Data can be compared by prescriber, by practice and by organisation in order to inform on prescribing costs and trends. It is updated monthly, six weeks after the end of the prescribing month.10

Start with identifying if there are any areas that need addressing in the ePACT data; for example, do you consistently mismatch best practice, or overspend in a particular area of therapeutics?

Your primary care organisation (PCO)/Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) prescribing adviser will be able to explain ePACT data to you and give you comparisons between your prescribing and those of neighbouring practices to help you focus on areas where you differ to your colleagues.

Data record

Medicines that a patient is receiving need to be clearly indicated in their record. Computer prescribing systems nowadays make this easy to demonstrate, as well as facilitating both regular patient medication reviews (see 'Practice prescription reviews', below) and analysis and audit. Computer records can highlight both overuse and underuse, enabling therapeutic failure or abuse and non-adherence issues to be addressed.

Practice formulary

Many GPs use a formulary, which can be developed in-house but is more commonly developed by a locality according to local guidelines and national recommendations. Formularies can be set to revert to generic drug names, which may be cheaper than alternatives, remembering the exceptions of varying bioavailability where generic substitution is not recommended.

Interactions, allergies and cautions can also be highlighted and act as a reminder for GPs to ensure patient safety. Many computer systems allow you to imbed locality guidelines into their prescribing function.

Formularies may also help to remind you of the first-line recommended treatment in any particular condition and may help as a memory aid to the many guidelines and recommendations that GPs are presented with.

Basing practice formularies on local guidelines requires local formulary committees to take a robust analytical approach. Nowadays the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) is heavily involved in these cost-benefit, evidence-based decisions.


Systems which support GPs in prescribing audit and analysis, and in providing information which supports safe effective prescribing include:

  • PCO/CCG prescribing advisers.

  • Organisations such as the Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN) and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) can help with guidelines on prescribing and cost-effectiveness in the context of quality patient care.11 12

  • NICE produces clinical audit tools in many clinical areas, which are based on NICE guidance. Some of these may be relevant to prescribing audits. They contain data collection sheets, audit reports and action plan templates as well as the guidance-based standards.13

  • The Quality, Innovation, Productivity and Prevention (QIPP) prescribing comparator schemes, which provide local targets to which GP practices can aspire.

  • The BNF and the BNF for children.14

  • The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).15

  • The electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC).16

  • Monthly Index of Medical Specialities (MIMS) prescribing guides.17


The types of goals to aim for when assessing prescribing systems were summarised by the Kings Fund reports into the quality of GP prescribing in 2011 and polypharmacy and medicine optimisation in 2013.7 18 They include demonstration of:

  • Regular and effective medication reviews (see below).

  • Regular audit of repeat prescription systems.

  • Significant event reviews for prescribing errors.

  • Use of systems to reduce medication error and potential for interaction.

  • Ready access to up-to-date information about medicines.

  • Uptake of electronic systems for transmission of prescriptions.

  • Co-ordination between GP and hospital, and between GP and pharmacies.

  • Extra support, and more frequent review, for those on six or more medications (polypharmacy).

  • Cost-effective prescribing, including the use of decision support prescribing systems such as ScriptSwitch®.

  • Use of generic prescribing where clinically appropriate.

  • Robust training for new prescribers and prescribing support staff.

  • Patients views and choices being explored and taken into account (eg, by patient surveys).

Continue reading below

Practice repeat prescription reviews

As a GP, more than half of your prescriptions will be issued without a consultation, as repeat prescriptions.3 Regular review of this is essential for self-appraisal as well as to fulfil contractual and commissioning obligations. Repeat prescriptions should be reviewed on a regular basis, and documented clearly. The frequency of this review may vary slightly depending on the individual, the condition, the medication, and contractual and local commissioning guidelines.

Polypharmacy is an increasing issue. NICE is considering six-monthly reviews as a future QOF target for those on more than six medications, but meanwhile it is good practice to review these individuals more regularly.

Prescribing audits in individual clinical areas are often undertaken as part of the QOF or local prescribing targets or key performance indicators (KPIs). These individual requirements in QOF areas such as chronic disease control and local and national enhanced services can be audited and the audits used as self-assessment as well as documentation for the contract.

For example, ensure that there is adequate recall for specific drug classes. An audit looking at your prescription of drugs with potentially serious side-effects and requiring ongoing monitoring would involve small numbers of patients but may prevent serious problems.

Hospital letters do not always identify patients who require such monitoring in primary care. Examples include warfarin, amiodarone, lithium, penicillamine, sulfasalazine and methotrexate.

Many computer systems can run protocols in the background when prescriptions are issued to check that the necessary blood tests and monitoring are being performed (eg, whether there has been a lithium level in the previous six months and whether it was in the therapeutic range). Such automatic checks with suitable prompts may help to prescribe more safely.

All practices should have a repeat prescribing protocol, and this should be reviewed and audited on a regular basis. Many areas have standardised tools for this process, such as the Welsh national repeat prescribing audit.19

Repeat prescribing systems and reviews should involve all the relevant members of the primary healthcare team, including administrative/reception staff involved in the process, district nurses, prescribing nurses and community pharmacists. As well as carrying out medicine reviews on some patients, community pharmacists help ensure good prescribing practice and assist with patient adherence through explanation and education.

Further reading and references

  1. Good Medical Practice - 2013; General Medical Council (last updated 2020).
  2. Avery AJ, Ghaleb M, Barber N, et al; The prevalence and nature of prescribing and monitoring errors in English general practice: a retrospective case note review. Br J Gen Pract. 2013 Aug;63(613):e543-53. doi: 10.3399/bjgp13X670679.
  3. Good practice in prescribing and managing medicines and devices; General Medical Council, February 2013 - updated 15 March 2022
  4. Slight SP, Howard R, Ghaleb M, et al; The causes of prescribing errors in English general practices: a qualitative study. Br J Gen Pract. 2013 Oct;63(615):e713-20. doi: 10.3399/bjgp13X673739.
  5. Appraisals; BMA
  6. Supporting information for appraisal and revalidation; General Medical Council
  7. Martin Duerden et al; Polypharmacy and medicines optimisation: Making it safe and sound, The Kings Fund, 28 Nov 2013
  8. Denneboom W, Dautzenberg MG, Grol R, et al; Analysis of polypharmacy in older patients in primary care using a multidisciplinary expert panel. Br J Gen Pract. 2006 Jul;56(528):504-10.
  9. Improving the use of medicines for better outcomes and reduced waste. An Action Plan (Steering Group on Improving the Use of Medicines); GOV.UK, October 2012
  10. NHS Prescription services; NHS Business Services Authority
  11. Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN)
  12. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)
  13. Audit and service improvement; National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).
  14. British National Formulary (BNF); NICE Evidence Services (UK access only)
  15. Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA)
  16. Electronic Medicines Compendium (eMc)
  17. Monthly Index of Medical Specialities (MIMS) prescribing guides
  18. The quality of GP prescribing in England; The Kings Fund, 2011
  19. CEPP National Audit: Repeat Prescribing; All Wales Medicines Strategy Group

Article history

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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