The drugs we just cannot get enough of
Drugs to treat depression, Parkinson’s disease, head lice, scabies and migraines ran out 11 times over four years, and others have been in short supply 211 times in the past six years, Pharmac figures reveal.
The shortages mean some patients have to pick up supplies every week as they trickle in.
‘‘It’s a massive pain in the a..., and it puts a lot of pressure on the pharmacy,’’ Wellington pharmacist Ben Latty said.
‘‘The gut feeling is [shortages are] getting worse and creating more headaches on a weekly basis.’’
Among the 211 medicine shortages were anti-psychotics, steroids, morphine pills, pregnancy tests and oral food replacements.
In 11 cases from 2013 to 2016, stocks of Pharmac-funded drugs ran out and patients had to switch to different medicines, or significantly change the way they took them, such as changing from a pill to an injection.
While such cases were rare, changing drugs could be dangerous, an Auckland pharmacist said.
‘‘Changing medication because of a shortage is quite harmful to them, because it’s not guaranteed to work, and everyone responds differently.’’
The figures were released by drug-buying agency Pharmac under the Official Information Act.
Pharmac’s director of engagement and implementation, Jude Urlich said: ‘‘It is important to note that, in these situations, people have still been able to get the treatment they need, and there hasn’t been a health impact on them, although there may have been some inconvenience in obtaining their medicines.’’
Supply problems were generally beyond the agency’s control. ‘‘Changes in international demand for medicines, manufacturing shortages, natural disasters or changes in regulatory rules in other countries can all have flow-on effects to supply in New Zealand.’’
A Wellington pharmacist said the supply of nutritional powder Ensure dipped so low earlier this year that he was able to give patients only one can a week.
‘‘We had an allocation of three cans a week and one can would only last someone four or five days. If a couple of people are on it, then you have to do a can a week ... you do what you can.’’
He said Pharmac was ‘‘pretty good’’ when it came to warnings about drug shortages but sometimes the first sign would be dwindling stock.
‘‘These are pretty major drugs people rely on, but I get the feeling their tender process is a bit ruthless.’’ Wellington pharmacist Ben Latty
‘‘Sometimes we will send an order and get a reply saying the order can’t be filled and it’s out of stock, and sometimes that’s the first we know about it.’’
Ongoing problems have occurred with the commonly prescribed beta-blocker metoprolol, used to treat high blood pressure.
Latty, who has been in the industry for seven years, blamed the Pharmac tender process, by which the sole, cheapest supplier of a medicine is awarded the exclusive contract for New Zealand.
‘‘These are pretty major drugs people rely on, but I get the feeling their tender process is a bit ruthless. The world is pretty envious of the Pharmac model and it keeps the cost of medicines down but it does have those downfalls.’’
Urlich said Pharmac laid out rules that suppliers had to be able to meet demand and, if they could not, they had to meet the costs of finding a replacement.
‘‘By signing an agreement with Pharmac, a supplier accepts responsibility to maintain ongoing supply. These contracts mean New Zealand experiences significantly fewer stock outages compared to other countries.’’