Most Pharmacists Now Believe A No-Deal Brexit Will 'Worsen' Medicine Shortages

Those on the frontline are caught between political uncertainty and a scared and sometimes angry public.

As the Brexit deadline of 31 October looms ever closer, there are fresh fears around medication shortages with a survey revealing 81% of pharmacists believe the situation will get worse in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

The Pharmacists’ Defence Association (PDA), a not-for-profit offering support to individual pharmacists and pharmacy students, surveyed 1,071 pharmacists between August and September. It revealed over 90% of respondents had witnessed an increase in medicine shortages in the past 12 months.

While Brexit cannot be blamed for existing shortages – current supply problems have been caused by a range of factors, including manufacturing issues, problems with raw ingredients and batch failures – Ash Soni, the departing president of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, said earlier this year he’d never seen so many commonly used drugs affected.

There are now widespread concerns the rising uncertainty is adding to a problem that some pharmacists argue is already reaching “critical” levels.

A quarter of the pharmacists polled said existing medicine shortages had caused, or had the potential to cause, harm to patients.

There have been severe shortages of hormone replacement therapy (HRT), a result of multiple manufacturers having supply problems at the same time.

Pharmacists said these shortages meant patients were “suffering severe distress and discomfort”. Respondents also suggested patients have been suffering seizures due to shortages of anti-epileptic drugs.

PDA’s head of policy Alima Batchelor said the survey results present “a stark picture of the huge stresses which drug shortages are causing for both pharmacists and patients”.

“Whilst these shortages cannot be ascribed to Brexit, they do show the need for concerted action to ensure that leaving the EU will not exacerbate an already unacceptable level of drug shortages,” Batchelor said.

It’s also taking up a significant amount of time – 62% of pharmacists say they spend an hour or more every day handling issues that arise from shortages.

This is causing stress for those working on the frontline, who are bearing the brunt of the public’s frustration. One pharmacist said they’d witnessed increasing numbers of confrontational patients taking their anger out on staff: “This further reduces morale in a sector where it is already low.”

Another had a more damning view of the situation: “Can’t wait to retire. After 40 years in the job, I have never before felt so down. I now get shouted at daily by customers. Not pleasant.”

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One hospital pharmacist claimed they’ve had to double staff numbers to keep pace with work. Another worried about how hospitals will cope.

“Hospital pharmacy is deeply underprepared in my humble opinion,” the pharmacist said, adding that chronic understaffing was adding to the problem.

The comments sourced as part of the survey suggest pharmacists don’t have the time, staffing or money to stay on top of the issue – especially if it worsens.

“The situation is becoming critical and I believe has serious consequences to patients,” one pharmacist said. “I’m not sure if Brexit has resulted in some issues at present, but worry it may worsen.”

PDA’s Alima Batchelor called upon the Department of Health and Social Care and the Treasury to look into the causes of drug shortages and what steps could be taken to “reduce inappropriate overuse of prescribed medicines” and, in turn, demand on supply.

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A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “We fully understand the concerns some people have about the availability of medicines, however there is no evidence of any supply shortages being related to Brexit.

“The Department has well-established procedures to deal with medicine shortages, whatever the cause, and works closely with partners and industry to help prevent shortages and resolve the issue as soon as possible.

“Patients should be reassured that we are doing everything we can to help ensure they can access the treatments they need after Brexit.”

The spokesperson said the government, industry and NHS have put in place “robust preparations” for Brexit, including some stockpiling, securing transport and warehouse capacity, and working with businesses to make sure they’re prepared for “day one” of Britain being out of the EU.