Across the world, access to essential medicine is considered part of “the right to health” - one of the social rights the World Health Organization set out in their constitution in 1946. However, here in Australia it is becoming an increasing problem, as pharmacies everywhere are trying to work through ongoing, and sporadic medicine shortages.
Shylie Branson, Pharmacist at TerryWhite Chemmart St Agnes, reports medicine shortages are not new, but that this year it has been much more pronounced, and much more long term.
“At the moment we are seeing shortages in medications that are used to treat chronic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure and also medicine for hormone replacement therapy,” Shylie says. “It seems to go through cycles where we can’t get one particular brand, so everyone moves onto another brand, and then that one drops out of the loop too.”
Over the past few years other medicines including antibiotics and antidepressants, oral contraceptives, and medicines for angina, osteoporosis and Parkinson’s Disease have all had shortages. The problem can range from being a minor inconvenience to the patient, to becoming a serious health complication. Shylie says in some cases there is not a prescription alternative available and that in those instances the patient is referred back to their doctor.
With many chronic diseases becoming more common in developing countries, there is greater demand for the medicines that treat them. Supply of the raw ingredients (from countries such as China and India) is not keeping up with this demand, and restrictions around workforce activities and international shipping of goods because of the COVID-19 pandemic are adding to the problem.
Foreseeing some of these problems, the Australian Government approved a number of temporary changes to medicines regulation at the beginning of the pandemic, to ensure Australians could continue to access the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) medicines they need.
These changes include allowing pharmacists to make certain substitutions in the event of a shortage. This means when the regular medication is not available the pharmacist can offer a different brand, a different strength, or change the medication from one which is long acting to one which is short acting.
“We are very wary of who we offer these options to,” Shylie advises. “It’s so easy for people to get stuck in the habit of taking one tablet twice a day for example – particularly if they have been doing so for a number of years. Whilst we can sometimes offer a different strength, of course we then need to change the number of tablets taken. With this there is always a risk that the habitual behaviour will take over and then people can get into trouble taking higher or lower daily doses. However, at the moment, we don’t have a lot of choice – it’s really just down to whatever is available at the time.”
Shylie recommends if there is a shortage of your medication, the best thing to do it speak with your pharmacist or your doctor.
“They will provide you with the next best alternatives for your situation at that given time,” Shylie adds. “It might mean a different brand of medicine using the same ingredients, an alternate strength of the same medicine, or your prescriber might choose a different medicine altogether.”
These alternatives may or may not be covered by the PBS. This was the case for Health Partners member Amy, 36, who could not access her usual oral contraceptive.
“I’ve been on Norimin (a PBS subsidised oral contraceptive) for some time and went to the pharmacy to get a repeat but was told this drug was out of stock,” Amy says. “I rang my GP and had a bulk-billed telehealth consult where she prescribed Yaz, warning me it was more expensive and a private script. The pharmacy quoted me $80 for a three-month supply, but after my Health Partners private prescription benefit was applied, I only paid a $40 gap.”
If you are concerned about potential shortages of your medication, speak with your GP or pharmacist. For more information about how Health Partners’ extras cover can help you, click here.