Drug shortages ‘heaping pressure’ on already stretched pharmacies, experts warn

A jump in the number of alerts issued to warn pharmacists that certain drugs are in short supply is “just the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to the challenges the sector is facing, experts have warned.

The unpredictability of the issue is also a “huge source of worry” for patients, they said.

It comes as analysis by the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) found the number of Serious Shortage Protocols (SSPs) – alerts that notify pharmacies that they may need to supply an alternative medication to patients – has gone up by three and a half times in the last two years.

The organisation has called for political parties to commit to tackling the “crisis” in the sector in the run up to the General Election.

According to the NPA, there have been 50 SSPs issued by the Department of Health and Social Care between 2022 and 2024 compared to 15 between 2019 and 2021.

The analysis found the alerts were for a range of conditions, including epilepsy, angina, menopause, thyroid problems and depression.

Four SSPs were sent out over a three-day period in May alone, the NPA claims, the same number that have been issued for the whole of 2020.

Paul Rees, chief executive of the NPA, said: “The national warnings are only issued when shortages are at their most acute, with this revealing just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the challenges facing pharmacies and their patients.

“Pharmacists will always help patients get alternative medication, when possible, but they face continual struggles obtaining supply across an ever-changing range of conditions, from diabetes to ADHD and epilepsy.

“Pharmacists are spending hours a day hunting down stock and are often forced to turn patients away due to being unable to order in vital medication.”

Rebekah Smith, deputy chief executive of the charity Epilepsy Action, added: “It’s extremely concerning to see the impact medication shortages are having on people with epilepsy, and that the issue still hasn’t been resolved.

Pharmacy First scheme
The Health and Social Care Committee warned drug shortages could threaten the success of the Pharmacy First scheme (Belinda Jiao/PA)

“The journey to finding the right medication, or the right combination, can be tough for people with epilepsy. But when they do find it, they shouldn’t have to fear losing the security it gives.”

Ms Smith said calls to the Epilepsy Action helpline regarding concerns about medication shortages have increased four-fold since the start of the year.

“It goes without saying that the unpredictability of the issue has been a huge source of worry,” she added.

“Not getting the right medication could mean more seizures, or even having one after being seizure-free for years.

“This could have a massive knock-on effect to many aspects of a person’s life, such as their ability to drive, or their job. It can cause side-effects.

“At its worst, it can be life-threatening. People with epilepsy don’t deserve to have to go through this.”

Menopause specialist and GP Dr Louise Newson described the shortage of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for menopause as “a public health catastrophe”, adding that “women deserve better”.

She said shortages have been caused by increased demand, with women now more aware of the benefits of HRT, which relieves menopausal symptoms.

“HRT shortages have had a detrimental effect on women seeking HRT, GP surgeries and also pharmacists,” Dr Newson said.

“There are risks to future health of not having HRT as well as more immediate effects of symptoms occurring, including low mood, poor sleep, anxiety, headaches, urine infections and joint pains, without hormones.”

It comes after MPs urged the Government to “get a grip” on drugs shortages and commission an independent review of the medicines supply chain.

The Health and Social Care Committee said the issue is leaving Pharmacy First, which launched in January, at risk of failure.

The policy allows patients to be treated for seven common conditions at their local pharmacy without the need for a GP appointment or prescription.

But MPs warned that patients could be reluctant to visit pharmacies for clinical services if medication is out of stock, and said Pharmacy First will “fail if people keep having to return to their GP”.

The report by the Health and Social Care Committee, published as part of its inquiry into pharmacy services, also called for a “complete overhaul” of the funding framework for community pharmacy if the sector is to realise its potential.

Mr Rees added: “It’s clear that these growing medicine shortages are heaping pressure on our already stretched local community pharmacy teams.

“The current funding crisis – which has seen support for pharmacies fall by 40% over the last decade in real terms – is a key issue in driving these appalling shortages.

“It is imperative that all the main parties commit during the General Election campaign to addressing the crisis facing community pharmacy – which is a key factor in the medicines shortages.

“We need these shortages tackled as a matter of urgency and a new funding deal that properly funds pharmacy to pay for the medicines our patients need.”