Worried about your medicines post-Brexit? We have systems in place – Harry McQuillan

As the date set for the UK’s exit from the EU looms ever closer, I thought this would be a good opportunity to explain how Community Pharmacy Scotland, along with the Scottish Government, the NHS and other key stakeholders, manages the availability of medicines and deals with any shortages that arise.

Harry McQuillan is the chief executive of Community Pharmacy Scotland.
Harry McQuillan is the chief executive of Community Pharmacy Scotland.

The potential issue of medicine shortages has been reported on in the media a lot over the past few months and so the time seems right to shed some light on how Community Pharmacy works hard to ensure your needs are met.

What do we mean when we refer to a ‘shortage’ of a medicine? The truth is that there is no hard and fast ­definition of a shortage, as medicines can be referred to as ‘short’ when they are low in stock, very hard to get hold of or out of stock altogether.

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The reasons behind shortages are also varied and it’s often not possible to pinpoint one cause.

They arise for a number of reasons such as issues with manufacturing, increased demand, and distribution. Plus, as medicines are sold on the international market, issues from outside of the UK and even the EU can affect which medicines are available in the UK.

It’s not possible for us to say if ­Brexit is influencing this current situation as many factors can interplay to cause a shortage, but it is possible.

There are a number of medicines shortages in Scotland at the moment – however, it’s important to know that this is not an unusual situation. Although not ideal, at CPS we are not overly worried or complacent about the current situation, as we have in place a system to monitor these shortages in partnership with the Scottish Government, and because community pharmacy teams are experienced in responding to changes in the ­medicines market.

Clearly, getting hold of medication is an extremely important matter and so preparing for a situation where the UK leaves the EU with no deal is ­vitally important.

The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) proposed a series of Statutory Instruments to change the law regarding medicines in this situation and one of these instruments is called the Serious Shortage Protocol (SSP). SSPs would be issued in the event that a medicine is ­completely out of stock in the UK and would outline the changes that can be made to a patient’s prescription by a pharmacist without having to return to the GP.

There has been some controversy on this issue during the last couple of weeks and there seems to be some general confusion over the point of introducing this law change.

Pharmacists are the experts in ­medicines and have the clinical ­training required to be part of the solution if a no-deal Brexit were to arrive and bring with it an increased level of shortages.

Any medicines affected would be managed by the DHSC which would list which medicines were in serious short supply and, after consultation with experts, what the alternative actions should be, including a switch to another medication if appropriate.

This would only be used in the most urgent of cases. The main benefit of having the SSP is allowing ­pharmacists to spend more time with patients, rather than all their time on the phone to GPs asking for them to reissue prescriptions with alternative medicines – which clearly has an enormous impact on GP time and ultimately results in delays for the patient.

Currently, pharmacy teams already spend a considerable amount of time every day sourcing medicines and in extreme cases referring back to GPs, to make sure that people get what they need on time. As a word of ­reassurance, pharmacy teams will always go above and beyond to secure medication for their patients and ensure continuity of care – and have been doing so for years.

It is very rare for a patient to go ­without as in the vast majority of ­cases there will be a workable ­solution to the shortage.

Almost all of the effort that goes into sourcing the medication you need each month when supply is tight is done behind the scenes, without patients noticing any impact on their care whatsoever.

If you are worried, the best way for you to help your pharmacy team out is to try and order your medication in plenty of time, but remember – very few medicines are affected at any ­given time, and you each have a team of people behind you committed to working their socks off to keep you well.

Harry McQuillan is the chief executive of Community Pharmacy Scotland.