The DH has not yet been “made aware of any concerns or negative effects on patient safety” related to the introduction of SSPs, it said in a one-year review of the policy published last month (May 27).
SSPs allow community pharmacists to supply a “specified medicine in accordance with a protocol rather than a prescription”, without needing to seek authorisation from the prescriber.
No concerns on the impact of SSPs
As part of its review, the DH sent a consultation – which ran from November 3-24 – to 16 organisations, including pharmacy groups, medical groups and patient organisations.
It asked whether they had any concerns over the impact of SSPs on the prescription-only medicines market and patient safety.
Eight organisations responded and none flagged any concerns over the impact of SSPs.
The review said: “In the 12 months that the SSP policy has been in effect, the DH is not aware of any concerns being raised about the effect on the medicines market or on patient safety for any of the SSPs that have been issued to date.
“Engagement with stakeholders has, rather, shown that SSPs have received a largely positive reception and are viewed as being beneficial, both in managing medicines shortages and in saving time.”
Most common SSPs
SSPs came into force in July 2019 in England to help ensure patients get quick access to medicines in the event of supply issues. Similar changes came into force in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland from October 2019.
The Human Medicines Regulations 2012 were changed to allow pharmacists to dispense an alternative medicine, rather than the prescription, in cases where an SSP was announced.
To date, 12 SSPs have been issued, seven of which have been for the antidepressant fluoxetine across 10mg, 30mg and 40mg. These seven SSPs have been extended multiple times, with 24 updates to the medicine’s availability overall published on the NHS Business Services Authority website.
Other medicines that have been subject to an SSP include haloperidol, Salazopyrin, levothyroxine, Competact and Estradot.
A DH spokesperson told C+D last week (June 2) the government is aware of the ongoing issues with fluoxetine, currently caused by manufacturing delays.
“The government has well-established processes to deal with medicine shortages and we work closely with the MHRA, NHS England and NHS Improvement and others in the supply chain to prevent shortages and minimise risks when they do arise,” the spokesperson added.
Read how the DH decides when to implement an SSP
In its one-year review of the SSP, the DH wrote that throughout the supply chain, there can be problems such as manufacturing issues, problems with raw ingredients or batch failures.
The DH said: “We continue to work closely with the affected suppliers to ensure the situation is resolved as quickly as possible.”
Does it go far enough?
SSPs have been criticised in the past for being a “half-measure”, or a “drop in the ocean”.
In its response to the review, published on 11 December 2020, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) said that SSPs had “hardly been used” and there was a lack of consistency in the way pharmacists are empowered to deal with medicines across the UK.
“While we have no concerns over the impact of SSPs on the prescription-only medicines market, our members have expressed concerns about the use of these protocols,” the RPS wrote in its response.
“Pharmacists have a professional responsibility to support patients with their medicines, including when there is a national shortage. They are the trained experts in medicines and their use,” it added.
Other issues flagged by the RPS members included a perception that SSPs are “bureaucratic and professionally frustrating” and that the “SSP system is inflexible, and scalability is a practical issue”.
Make minor amends
The RPS called for the legislation to be changed “to allow pharmacists to make minor amendments to a prescription, without a protocol, when a medicine is out of stock”.
“Amendments would include changes such as a different quantity, strength, formulation or generic version of the same medicine in discussion with the patient,” it wrote.
The National Pharmacy Association said in its response – which it shared with C+D – that SSPs “have not gone far enough to be able to meet the demands of medicine shortages”.
The association suggested that pharmacists should be able to make “simple, non-clinical substitutions when a medicine is out of stock”, which would avoid the need to refer the patient back to their GP.
The Company Chemists’ Association also suggested that “more permanent alternatives to SSPs” should be considered.
In its response, seen by C+D, it suggested that, for instance, pharmacists should be able to use their clinical skills to make “generic substitution and substitution of strength, quantity and formulation in appropriate circumstances, without the need for special protocols or referral back to the prescriber”.
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