The Health Secretary has been urged to change the law to allow pharmacists to alter prescriptions during medical shortages, like the one currently faced by women who rely on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) products. Supply shortages of the medicine, used to treat the symptoms of menopause, have been so severe some women have been forced to travel hundreds of miles in search of it.
With around a million women relying on HRT in Britain, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) is calling on Sajid Javid to allow pharmacists to dispense substitute versions of prescription medicines.
Claire Anderson, the president of RPS, told The Guardian that current laws in England stipulate that community pharmacists must provide the exact product and amount of medication on the prescription. If the type of HRT product is not available, a substitute cannot be given out without consulting the prescribing GP.
This comes after Mr Javid announced his intention to appoint an HRT tsar, amid reports the HRT shortage was leaving women desperate. However, while the RPS welcomed the decision, Ms Anderson said in a subsequent statement that the Government needed to "go further and end unfair prescription charges for patients in England altogether".
Here’s what you need to know what HRT is and what the shortage could mean for people in the UK.
HRT and menopause
Hormone replacement therapy is one form of treatment for menopause, including symptoms like anxiety, joint pain, and hot flushes.
"The trouble with the menopause is for far too long women have not been listened to," Labour MP and the co-chairwoman of the UK menopause taskforce Carolyn Harris told BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "For a menopausal woman, this HRT is as important as insulin is to a diabetic."
What is HRT?
According to the NHS, HRT "replaces the hormones that a woman's body no longer produces because of the menopause". The two main types are oestrogen and progesterone - medication tends to be split into combined HRT (taking both hormones) and oestrogen-only HRT. There are various ways to take HRT, including tablets, skin patches, gels and implants.
The NHS says there's little or no change in the risk of breast cancer if you take oestrogen-only HRT, and combined HRT can be associated with a small increase in the risk of breast cancer, related to how long you take the medication for. This risk falls after you stop taking it. Experts stress the importance of because of breast cancer screening appointments due to this increased risk.
The NHS says there's no increased risk of blood clots from HRT patches or gels, but a small increase from taking HRT tablets. HRT also doesn't significantly raise the risk of heart disease and strokes, and when it's started before the age of 60 it may, in fact, reduce the danger.
What does the HRT shortage mean for people in the UK?
Recent figures suggest the number of HRT prescriptions in the UK has more doubled in the last five years but stocks are running low, with one manufacturer of a commonly-used hormone replacement gel reporting supply problems. Shortages have reportedly caused women to share prescriptions, with some said to be made suicidal by the debilitating menopause symptoms they suffer without the medication.
Additional reporting by PA.