The number of common medicines on the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee's (PSNC) price concessions’ list, which the committee says ‘gives an indication’ of which drugs are currently in short supply, reached an all-time high of 96 in March - the month in which the UK was originally meant to leave the EU.
There has been widespread speculation that the increase in medicine shortages is linked to Brexit. However, the PSNC has insisted that medicine supplies are ‘unaffected’ by the UK’s departure from the EU and will therefore not improve as a result of the Brexit deadline being extended to 31 October 2019.
PSNC director of pharmacy funding Mike Dent said: ‘Medicine shortages are not a new phenomenon and a variety of issues have been contributing to the problem. Factors such as manufacturing issues, availability of raw ingredients, increased demand and product recalls are all contributing in part and are unaffected by a delay to the UK’s EU departure date.’
Medicine shortages have been driving up GP and pharmacist workload over the past few months, and the PSNC said it was becoming ‘increasingly concerned’ about the impact they are having on primary care staff and patients.
‘Pharmacy teams are working hard to make sure that patients get their medicines when they need them, but at times they are having to contact up to seven or eight wholesalers to obtain a medicine and this can lead to delays,’ Mr Dent said.
‘As a last resort, the pharmacist will liaise with the GP to find an alternative medicine that may be suitable for the patient. Unfortunately, this last resort is becoming more common and issuing a new prescription may be the best route for the patient to receive treatment quickly. We recognise the additional workload medicine shortages bring to GPs and pharmacists and collaborative working at a local level is essential.’
Dr Andrew Green, GPC clinical and prescribing lead, said that medicine supply issues had become ‘a daily headache’ for GPs. ‘The first a GP may know of a shortage is when a patient returns to them upset that they have been unable to get hold of the medication prescribed,' he said.
‘While Brexit has the potential to exacerbate this, GPs and pharmacists have been working for some time to deal with shortages and it is imperative that governments take the ongoing situation seriously regardless of the wider political climate.’
A survey conducted by GPonline earlier this year found that more than half of 586 GP respondents said they had 'often' been forced to prescribe second-choice medication over the past year because of drug shortages. A total of 16% reported being forced to do so 'very often' and a further 35% 'fairly often'.
Meanwhile, one in seven GPs said their patients had experienced negative effects - including harm or slower recovery - after medicines shortages forced them to switch to second-choice drugs.
In January, GP leaders called for an ‘early warning system’ to flag up medicine supply problems after doctors took to social media to highlighting an increase in the number of common medicines becoming unavailable.
The UK LMCs conference last month also passed a motion calling on health departments to address the issue, highlighting concern over the impact shortages are having on patient care and GP workload.
Since the start of this year the DHSC has maintained that there is ‘no evidence’ that medicine supply issues are linked to the UK's preparations to leave the EU.