GPs demand 'early warning system' as drug shortages drive up workload

GP leaders have demanded an 'early warning system' to flag up medicine supply problems amid a spike in drug shortages that is driving up practice workload and stress for patients.

Medicines in short supply (Photo: iStock.com/MJ_Prototype)
Medicines in short supply (Photo: iStock.com/MJ_Prototype)

The number of common medicines on a shortage of supply list for England has risen sharply in recent months. Common products - including painkillers, antidepressants and blood pressure medicines - are among the items that have been added to the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC)’s ‘price concessions’ list.

The list shows drugs for which the NHS has agreed to pay a temporarily higher price to prevent shortages, offering a picture of which medicines are currently low in stock.

According to the PSNC - which represents pharmacists - the number of medicines in short supply has almost doubled in just two months, from 45 in October to 80 at the end of December 2018.

Drug shortages

Although the supply of medicines is constantly fluctuating, a spokesperson for the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RCP) confirmed to GPonline that shortages ‘have become more acute’ in recent months.

GPs and pharmacists across the UK have been noticing an increase in the number of medicines becoming unavailable for several weeks, with some speculating that it could be linked to ongoing uncertainty surrounding Brexit. Bradford GP Dr Amir Khan said on Twitter that he had been unable to prescribe a series of widely-used drugs and a pharmacist in Bolton said he was ‘constantly ringing wholesalers’ to obtain medicines.

A DHSC spokesperson said there was ‘no evidence’ that current medicine supply issues were linked to EU exit preparations, adding that any problems were probably ‘due to manufacturing or distribution issues’.

GPC clinical and prescribing lead Dr Andrew Green said: ‘Shortages of medicines are an ongoing issue for GPs, and cause both considerable frustration for doctors, and added stress and inconvenience for patients.

‘It is often the case that the first the GP knows about a medicine shortage is when an understandably upset patient returns to the surgery after being unable to pick up their prescription.’

GP workload

He added: ‘Fortunately, there are often alternative medicines that can be offered, but the process to change prescriptions or sometimes alter patients’ care management increases workload for GPs and can be distressing for sick patients.

‘Since raising this issue with DHSC, it has shared its shortage list with us, which can change month-by-month, and we in turn have been passing this on to LMCs to share with practices, but what is really needed is a national early warning system for GPs to avoid this unnecessary disruption to patients getting access to the medicines they need.’

This is the second spike in medicine shortages in just over a year. The number of drugs on the PSNC’s ‘price concessions’ list peaked in November 2017, when 91 items were subject to availability problems.

A GPonline survey from August 2016 revealed that 82% of GPs had been forced to prescribe a second-choice drug over the previous 12 months - one in five of whom said the patient had gone on to experience negative effects as a result.

It is estimated that over 2m prescription items are dispensed every day in England.

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