Increasing drug shortages worsen GP workload pressure

A total of 130 drugs are currently out of stock according to the MIMS drug shortage tracker, causing 'constant frustration' for GPs and patients, and driving up practice workload.

 The MIMS shortages tracker lists over 100 products with short- and long-term supply issues. | GETTY IMAGES
The MIMS shortages tracker lists over 100 products with short- and long-term supply issues. | GETTY IMAGES

Shortages have increased sharply over the past six months, analysis of data from the shortages 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 of stock peaked at 142 in November last year before a slight dip in January - and are now rising again, figures from the tracker suggest.

Several contraceptives are currently unavailable although the majority of HRT products are now back in stock following supply issues first reported in 2019. All preparations of ranitidine remain out of stock as a result of a precautionary recall in 2019 prompted by fears of contamination with a potential carcinogen.

Constant frustration

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.

Serious shortage protocols, which allow pharmacists to dispense specified alternatives without needing to consult the prescriber, are currently in place for only five products

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.

Workload pressure

'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.'

MIMS' sister site 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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