The Department of Health and Social Care (DH) collated the figure from reports it sent to the NHS of shortages in both primary and secondary care, it said in response to a freedom-of-information (FOI) request by C+D (see more on how these shortages were reported below).
This figure marked an increase of 19 on the total for 2018, when the DH recorded 159 shortages. The DH has previously told C+D it cannot reveal the names of specific medicines that suffered a shortage due to “commercial sensitivities”.
In its FOI response, the government stressed to C+D that “although the number of issues we have communicated to the NHS has increased, there are several reasons why this might not be the result of actual increases in the number of shortages we have experienced”.
The DH “has improved its stakeholder engagement regarding managing shortages, meaning more stakeholders are now regularly reporting issues to us, including clinical commissioning groups and patient groups”, it explained.
“From January 2019, it became a mandatory requirement that pharmaceutical companies must promptly report shortages to the DH. This means more supply issues have been reported to the DH, and subsequently documented and managed by us, than in previous years.
“The DH has expanded specialist resources within the medicine supply team to ensure there are more people dealing with medicine supply issues,” it added.
The British Generic Manufacturers Association (BGMA)’s director general Warwick Smith said the figures obtained by C+D “certainly resonate with ours”.
“Our current information from members suggests that the supply position is towards the middle of the range when compared with the position over recent years,” Mr Smith said.
“The [number of shortages] does seem to be in the normal range, though perhaps not quite as good as it has been at some points in the past,” Mr Smith said.
“The ability of a flexible multi-source market to compensate and self-correct seems to be borne out,” he added.
Martin Sawer, executive director of wholesaler body the Healthcare Distribution Association (HDA), had had previously told C+D that wholesalers and distributors were struggling to source between 100 and 150 different products at any one time.
However, this estimate accounted for each shortage reported by an individual wholesaler, he explained to C+D this week, and so cannot be directly correlated to the DH's overall annual report of 178 shortages across the country.
“The two figures can’t really be compared,” he said.
A medicine going on the DH's list of shortages “is a big step”, Mr Sawer continued. “The DH has taken care to justify products going on the list, in an informed decision. They’ll have checked it with wholesalers and manufacturers.”
The whole story?
The DH figure may not fully reflect the reality of shortages for community pharmacy professionals – C+D readers reported shortages across all 36 categories of medicines last year.
Almost all (95%) of the 402 respondents to a C+D survey in September said they were finding it harder to get hold of medicines now than a year ago.
Why do medicine shortages happen? Read C+D's investigation here.