Rise in medicines shortages adds to intense GP workload pressure

Shortages of medicines widely used in primary care spiked in the final months of last year and remain high - causing 'constant frustration' for GPs and patients, and driving up practice workload.

Medicines shortages impact on GPs (Photo: People Images/Getty Images)
Medicines shortages impact on GPs (Photo: People Images/Getty Images)

A total of 130 drugs commonly used in primary care are currently out of stock according to the drug shortage tracker produced by GPonline's sister website MIMS.

Shortages have increased sharply over the past six months, analysis of data from the tracker reveals - with 128 products out of stock on average since mid-September 2020, compared with 105 on average over the year to September 2020.

Products out ot stock peaked at 142 in November last year before a slight dip in January - and are now rising again, figures from the MIMS tracker show.

Medicines shortages

GP leaders have warned that shortages of medicines add to GP workload and stress for patients. GPs may be forced to re-write prescriptions, switching patients to alternative medications when a first-choice option is not available.

Patients can also be forced to search around multiple pharmacies to locate a supply of the drug they have been prescribed.

BMA GP committee executive team clinical lead Dr Farah Jameel said: 'Medicine shortages have been a constant frustration for GPs and patients alike for some time now, although it’s unclear why there may have been an increase in recent months.

'Not only do patients find themselves having to try new medicines and make multiple visits to the pharmacy if their medicine is unavailable, but valuable GP time is spent rearranging alternative prescriptions.

GP workload

'While GPs are now used to dealing with this on a daily basis, this unnecessary extra admin is something practices could really do without given the intense workload pressure they – and the whole NHS – are under as they tackle the latest phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.'

RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall said: 'Shortages of drug supplies, particularly those that are commonly prescribed in general practice, are never ideal - they can be frustrating for GPs and pharmacists, who will want to ensure patients get the most suitable medication in the first instance, and worrying for patients.

'However, we know shortages can happen for a variety of reasons, such as the ebbs and flow of supply chains, and often this is unavoidable. When they do happen, GPs will do our best to continue to prescribe medication as usual, wherever possible, and work with pharmacist colleagues to arrange suitable alternatives, when it isn’t. We understand that for patients who take regular medications, problems with supplies may be concerning, so we will also do what we can to let patients know of any supply issues or changes affecting their medication, and answer any questions they may have.'

GPonline reported earlier this week that GP workload has risen sharply during the pandemic as practices have followed NHS England advice to switch to a 'total triage' model, with the majority of consultations being carried out remotely.

Overall consultations have increased in the early part of this year compared with the start of 2020, before the pandemic took hold, according to RCGP surveillance data - but clinical administrative work for GPs in particular has risen sharply.

This surge of admin work includes prescriptions - and medicines shortages may be a factor behind the sharp increase, alongside pressures from an increase in referrals and other work triggered by the NHS backlog built up during the pandemic.

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