Background: The UK, USA and the World Health Organization have identified improved patient safety in healthcare as a priority. Medication error has been identified as one of the most frequent forms of medical error and is associated with significant medical harm. Errors are the result of the systems that produce them. In industrial settings, a range of systematic techniques have been designed to reduce error and waste. The first stage of these processes is to map out the whole system and its reliability at each stage. However, to date, studies of medication error and solutions have concentrated on individual parts of the whole system. In this paper we wished to conduct a systematic review of the literature, in order to map out the medication system with its associated errors and failures in quality, to assess the strength of the evidence and to use approaches from quality management to identify ways in which the system could be made safer. \ud Methods: We mapped out the medicines management system in primary care in the UK. We conducted a systematic literature review in order to refine our map of the system and to establish the quality of the research and reliability of the system. \ud Results: The map demonstrated that the proportion of errors in the management system for medicines in primary care is very high. Several stages of the process had error rates of 50% or more: repeat prescribing reviews, interface prescribing and communication and patient adherence. When including the efficacy of the medicine in the system, the available evidence suggested that only between 4% and 21% of patients achieved the optimum benefit from their medication. Whilst there were some limitations in the evidence base, including the error rate measurement and the sampling strategies employed, there was sufficient information to indicate the ways in which the system could be improved, using management approaches. The first step to improving the overall quality would be routine monitoring of adherence, clinical effectiveness and hospital admissions. \ud Conclusion: By adopting the whole system approach from a management perspective we have found where failures in quality occur in medication use in primary care in the UK, and where weaknesses occur in the associated evidence base. Quality management approaches have allowed us to develop a coherent change and research agenda in order to tackle these, so far, fairly intractable problems
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