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Medicine shortages: New report reveals “shock rise” in shortages of antibiotics, epilepsy medication


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The number of notifications issued by drug companies warning of impending medicine shortages has more than doubled compared to three years ago

Over the past two years, there has been a persistent increase in medicine shortages, leading to patients experiencing a “new normal” of frequent disruptions to essential drugs, according to a new research report published today (18 April).

The research conducted by the Nuffield Trust and a group of academics revealed a “shock rise” in shortages of life-saving drugs such as antibiotics and epilepsy medication, attributed to global supply problems.

“These shortages come at a cost to the patient and the taxpayer, and are happening despite the NHS spending hundreds of extra millions trying to mitigate the problem,” it said.

Funded by the Health Foundation, the research also highlighted the potential impact of the EU exit, warning that “the UK risks being left in the cold when it comes to co-ordinated EU attempts to tackle them.”

The report observed that although the EU exit hasn’t directly caused the recent surge in medicine shortages, it may significantly weaken the UK’s ability to respond to them by “splitting it from European supply chains, authorisations and collective efforts to respond to shortages.”

Specifically, the research highlighted the risks faced by the UK due to its exclusion from key initiatives led by EU member states, such as the Critical Medicines Alliance and Voluntary Solidarity Mechanism, to safeguard themselves against the impact of medicines shortages.

Mark Dayan, Brexit Programme Lead at the Nuffield Trust, said: “The rise in shortages of vital medicines from rare to commonplace has been a shocking development that few would have expected a decade ago.

“More and more patients across the UK are experiencing a pharmacist telling them that their medication is not available, it may not be available soon, and it may not be available anywhere nearby. This is also creating a great deal of extra work for both GPs and pharmacists.”

According to him, many of these problems are global and relate to “fragile chains of imports” from Asia, exacerbated by “Covid-19 shutdowns, inflation and global instability.”

Key points from the Nuffield Trust’s latest report

There has been a notable increase in price concessions in recent months, as the research found that “prior to 2016 there were rarely more than 20 per month but in late 2022 they peaked at 199 and have remained high ever since.”

Additionally, the study uncovered that the excess cost for medicines during months subject to price concessions amounted to £220 million over the year leading up to September 2023.

The number of notifications by drug companies warning of impending shortages has more than doubled compared to three years ago, with 1,634 such alerts issued in 2023, compared to 648 in 2020.

Concerns over supply fears in Northern Ireland following Brexit led to a spike in drug shortage alerts in 2021, the research revealed.

Another indicator of drug shortages in the UK was the slower pace of approving new drugs compared to the EU.  Out of the new drugs authorised in the year leading up to December 2023, 56 drugs authorised in Europe were later approved in the UK, while eight have not been approved at all, according to the Nuffield Trust report.

NHS turns to ‘red list’ countries for workforce

The study also exposed how Brexit has compelled the National Health Service (NHS) to rely on “ethically dubious” sources of migration to bolster its workforce.

According to the findings, recruitment from countries categorised on the “red list” has increased by almost a third within a single year.

Furthermore, the research highlighted that post-Brexit, the UK has fallen behind its European counterparts in terms of life science and medicine regulation.

As mentioned in the Nuffield Trust statement, this research forms part of a broader report titled “The Future for Health after Brexit,” which is supported by the Health Foundation.

Commenting on the report, Professor Tamara Hervey of the City Law School said: “There is nothing inevitable about this ‘new normal’ where Great Britain is isolated in efforts to manage fragilities in global supply of the products and people we need to run the NHS. It is the consequence of policy choices and those could be different.”

If the Covid-19 pandemic taught us anything, it is that the world is an interconnected place, and having cordial relations with our near neighbours will help us to deliver the health services our population deserves.”

The study authors argue that solving the problems identified will require a more co-operative and proactive approach to EU/UK relations than currently in place.

The authors of the study argued that addressing the identified problems will require a “more co-operative and proactive approach to EU/UK relations” than currently in place.

They called on the government to enhance its ability to predict medicine shortages, increase transparency with patients and the NHS regarding the potential for such shortages, and improve its strategies for stockpiling medications.






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