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Medicine shortages have been an issue around the world for quite a while, but recently the impact has been felt closer to home, here in the UK. You may have heard about the issue online, in the newspaper or on TV – it can be hard to understand what’s really going on and the reasons behind it. There are times when a medicine is in such short supply that patients have to be taken off it and prescribed something else. This can happen with little explanation, and be really confusing and upsetting for patients.

What causes medicine shortages?

There are a lot of different reasons why a medicine shortage, or “out-of-stock” issue, could occur. A recent report by the Economic Intelligence Unit broke the causes down into three broad categories: economic, manufacturing and supply chain, and regulatory.

Economic causes

We’re all aware of the pressures on NHS and healthcare budgets in recent years, and even with 30p out of every £1 spent on public services going to healthcare, there are still the pressures of an aging population and the growing number of people coping with long-term chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and dementia.

Generic (unbranded) medicines do a lot to increase access to medicines and prevent shortages by increasing the choice and availability of treatments at a price that’s generally much cheaper than the branded equivalent. Whilst 62% of medicines dispensed in Europe are generic, they only make up around 4% of total healthcare expenditure.

One way that the UK government has addressed its costs is to put in place strong rules for how medicines are priced. As a result the UK has some of the cheapest medicines prices anywhere in Europe, and this can sometimes create difficulties for manufacturers. Very low prices and medicines tendering can mean that the prices of some generic medicines can be reduced to an unsustainable level – meaning that manufacturers sometimes withdraw from the market because they simply can’t afford to supply the medicine.  This creates less competition, and reliance on too few suppliers – meaning that if there are only one or two manufacturers making a medicine but one of them suddenly has a manufacturing problem, this can lead to a shortage.

Manufacturing and supply chain issues

When you pick up your prescription from your pharmacist, have you ever thought about the journey your medicine has made to get to you? Take a look at our video below, which gives you the inside view on the journey of a Teva medicine:

Pretty interesting, huh? But when you have a supply chain as complex as that, with so many different moving parts, even the smallest issue can have a knock-on effect which could delay getting the product to the pharmacy and into your medicine cabinet. And some of the medicines that we sell in the UK are made on our behalf by other companies, perhaps where we don’t have the capability. But this means that we don’t control the manufacturing process, and so we’re limited in what we can do if our supplier has a problem.

Strict quality rules are there to make sure that medicines are only released if they pass stringent checks – we can’t provide a medicine to patients unless it meets the really high quality standards we have in the UK, which is just how it should be. Every batch of medicines is checked all the way through every stage of the manufacturing process, and the slightest deviation from quality standards could mean that we may have to temporarily stop supply. If a product doesn’t meet this standard, then we won’t supply it. ‘Failing quality tests’ sounds scary, but it’s almost always a very minor issue – maybe the maximum permitted level of an ingredient in a drug is 0.01% and the test report says it found 0.012%. Or maybe the patient leaflet has a misprint – if it isn’t perfect, we can’t sell it. All of this is to make sure that patients are receiving medicines that are safe and to a high standard.

Regulatory causes

There are lots of rules and regulations to make sure that the market for medicines is safe. Take a look at this video from Sarah Barker, Regulatory Affairs Director, who can give you an insight into some of the regulations that are in place for medicines in the UK.

[SB video on UK medicine regulations]

Having the right licence to make and sell a medicine is crucial – it gives you the confidence that the manufacturer has permission to make a medicine for you, and that it’s keeping to the strict rule. But just like a quality problem, supplying a medicine that doesn’t meet the licence conditions just isn’t an option.

 

If my medicine is out of stock or unavailable due to a shortage, what should I do?

Always talk to a healthcare professional first, such as your pharmacist or GP. They should be able to advise you on next steps. They also may have more information about the shortage and when your product is expected back in stock. If you’re taking a Teva medicine, you can also contact us for more information. As we work in a regulated environment there may be some restrictions on what we can and can’t say, but we will always do our best to point you in the right direction to any information you may need.

 

What’s Teva UK doing to tackle the shortages issue?

Our number one priority is you, the patient. We understand the impact that shortages can have on patients, and we’ll always do our best to avoid our products going out of stock. Where we’re having issues, we always try to communicate them as swiftly as possible – whether that is to government agencies such as the MHRA, or to the many patient associations that we’re in regular contact with.

We’re also working hard to tackle the issue of shortages through industry groups such as the British Generics Manufacturers Association and Medicines For Europe. Shortages are at the top of the agenda for both of these organisations, and we’ll always be a strong voice within them pushing for greater action on an industry-wide level through our partnerships with government and healthcare authorities. 

 

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