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Wholesalers: Media 'horror stories' cause 'self-fulfilling’ shortages

Surges in demand for certain drugs can be traced back to “firestorm” news stories that don’t necessarily reflect market conditions, a wholesaling industry representative has suggested.

Media reports on medicines shortages can actually drive them in a “self-fulfilling prophecy”, executive director of the Healthcare Distribution Association (HDA) Martin Sawer told C+D in an exclusive interview last week (August 17).

Mr Sawer told C+D that “horror stories” about the price or availability of certain medicines on social media, in the trade press or in national papers can cause a demand “firestorm” because they give an inaccurate impression that there might be a shortage of the item mentioned in the reporting.

Read more: ‘Four-figure loss’: Pharmacy contractors rage at atorvastatin crisis

He expressed concern that pharmacists can fall prey to sensationalist media reports and place orders as a reaction to a reported shortage.

“All it will take is one patient to say they couldn't get Calpol for their child or something, and that will be it,” he said.

But he added that “all sorts of things” can happen with medicine supply in “individual cases”.


“Knee-jerk reaction”


Mr Sawer said he could “understand” the reaction from pharmacists, who want to ensure patients have access to medicines.

But he stressed that when many pharmacists respond to shortage reports by placing orders, they will place them on electronic systems that will keep requesting the medicine until the order is satisfied.

Wholesalers, receiving a flood of orders across the country, are then forced to “restrict” supply as demand goes “through the roof”, he explained.

Read more: ‘Out of stock’: Prices ‘sky high’ as cold and flu meds shortages persist

“Then the pharmacist says, ‘Well, I can't get it anymore from a wholesaler,’” Mr Sawer said, describing the situation as a “self-fulfilling prophecy”.

He added that the “overwhelming nature” of the pharmacy profession – providing medicine and clinical services as well as running a business – can lead to a “knee-jerk reaction” against wholesalers, with claims of being ripped off or a belief that a wholesaler doesn’t have a particular medicine.

“They need to understand what's behind it,” he said, imploring the media to “help” with adding “context”.


Atorvastatin woes


“If someone is quoted in the media saying, ‘My atorvastatin is 10 times what it was’, then all the pharmacies in the whole UK will buy more atorvastatin,” Mr Sawer said, adding that this surge would drive up prices even further.

It comes as C+D revealed earlier this month that a snap poll of 182 pharmacy contractors found that nearly half were facing losses in excess of £1,000 on purchasing atorvastatin alone.

One pharmacy owner who spoke to C+D reported that they were facing losses of £15,000, as well as the loss of “hundreds” of working hours due to the knock-on effect of the atorvastatin price hikes and shortages.


“Be more rational”


Mr Sawer also described other situations that can lead to unexpected surges in demand, including television shows that bring unexpected public attention to a medicine or changes in prescription guidelines that are not communicated effectively with the sector.

He called for people to “be more rational about these issues”.

Read more: Pharmacy time spent sourcing medicines more than doubles to 11 hours a week

In February, C+D reported that pharmacists were seeing ongoing shortages of cold and flu medications, with various brands “out of stock” and prices “sky high”. 

The previous month, pharmacists had told C+D that they were struggling to get hold of medicines such as Lemsip amid a significant increase in demand for cold and flu treatments.

But the Proprietary Association of Great Britain (PAGB) – which represents manufacturers of over-the-counter (OTC) medications – said at the time that there was no shortage of the medicines and manufacturers were “meeting” increased demand.

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