What Can You Actually Do If You're Impacted By Medicine Shortages?

The NHS is running low on medication for epilepsy, heart conditions, cancer and mental illnesses, according to a new document.

Medication shortages have been rife since the start of the year – and it seems the situation isn’t going to get better any time soon.

An internal 24-page document from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), seen by the Guardian, showed the NHS is running low on multiple medicines including those used to treat cancer, mental illness and heart conditions.

As of last week, there were 17 new drug shortages, according to the document, in addition to ongoing issues with 69 different types and doses of medication.

Dr Nick Mann, a GP based in London, called the situation “absolutely unprecedented” and told the Guardian: “Previously we would have one or two or three drugs that would go offline for a while, but this is something on a different level.”

Since 2014, more than 900 formulations have been in short supply at some point or other, according to Pulse. There are many reasons why this happens – but predominantly it’s down to issues with the global supply chain.

When something goes wrong in one part of the chain, it can have a roll-on effect to the other parts of it, according to Fin McCaul, a community pharmacist in Manchester. Any issue with a particular ingredient, the packaging, or safety information can impact the whole supply.

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What’s more, the UK – and England, in particular – has some of the cheapest medicines in the market. “Community pharmacies worked hard in negotiating down tariff prices with manufacturers to make the UK one of the best value sources of drugs,” McCaul told HuffPost UK earlier this year.

“When there’s a shortage worldwide, the UK then tends to be the last place the manufacturers will put the stock into, purely because they can get a better return somewhere else.”

It is understood that drugs for cancer, Parkinson’s disease, mental health issues, some eye conditions, tuberculosis, heart conditions, hepatitis and epilepsy are currently experiencing shortages.

So what can people do if they’re impacted – if anything?

1. Speak to your pharmacist.

The first port of call for patients should be their pharmacy, Leyla Hannbeck, CEO of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp), tells HuffPost UK.

“Patients should discuss any concerns they have regarding medicine shortages with their pharmacist,” she says. “All healthcare professionals are working together to ensure patients are looked after and not left without their medicines.”

In some cases, she says, pharmacists might phone up other pharmacies to see if they have a specific type of medication in stock.

2. Get your prescription a week early.

Professor Ley Sander, medical director at the Epilepsy Society, advises people to take their prescription to the pharmacy up to seven days before actually needing the medication – to allow for delays.

“It gives the pharmacist time to order stock from suppliers or to ring other pharmacies or suppliers, to access your medication elsewhere,” he says.

3. Don’t stockpile medicine.

Patients are advised not to stockpile medicine as this can further contribute to shortages and also result in medication waste. Only order what you need.

4. Order online.

It’s worth seeing if you can order medicine online through your pharmacy – it’s best to go in and speak to a pharmacist about how to do that, so they can guide you through the process if it’s available.

Don’t try and source your medication from “unreputable sources” online though, warns Hannbeck, as you might end up taking counterfeit meds that could cause you harm.

5. Get to grips with the Serious Shortages Protocol.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has a Serious Shortages Protocol (SSP) that will be activated in the case where medication is in very short supply. It may be used when other measures have been exhausted or are likely to be ineffective.

This enables pharmacists to offer alternative drugs to the ones prescribed by GPs – this could mean being given medication with a lower dosage which you have to take more of, or a generic equivalent or different brand. However, this isn’t always suitable – for example, for someone needing epilepsy drugs.

As a patient, you are entitled not to accept a changed prescription but to refer back to your GP, says Prof Sander. If you want to know more about the protocol, it’s worth speaking to your GP or pharmacist.

DHSC told HuffPost UK it cannot comment on the shortages “due to the pre-election period.”