Last night (June 17) saw the safety of prescription drugs being brought into question by Channel 4’s Dispatches: How safe are your medicines? documentary, which investigated how medicines stolen by criminals linked to the Italian Mafia ended up in the NHS supply chain.
Between 2011 and 2014, thousands of medicines were stolen from Italian hospitals and lorries by criminal gangs. These medicines then made their way back into the supply chain through bogus companies selling them to legitimate wholesalers, including one in the UK.
While it’s a fascinating story, and one which should certainly highlight the importance of policing the complex way in which medicines make their way from manufacturer to wholesaler – and ultimately pharmacies – the decision to implicate community pharmacies without evidence was, in my view, irresponsible scaremongering.
The “largest purchaser”
Trident Pharmaceuticals, a subsidiary of wholesaler AAH, had purchased some of the stolen medicines, according to the programme. During the segment in which Lloydspharmacy was mentioned, reporter Antony Barnett stated that Trident was “by far the largest purchaser of these falsified drugs”, before explaining that “Trident is owned by the US firm McKesson, [which] runs one of Britain’s best-known high street chemists”.
At this point, a Lloydspharmacy advert began to play, while Mr Barnett’s voiceover continued to explain that Lloydspharmacy and Trident are owned by McKesson. However, the programme did not prove that illegitimate medicines were ever dispensed by a Lloydspharmacy branch. I would argue that the placement of the multiple's advert set a sinister and provocative tone, which unfairly targeted the chain.
This visual cue would have proved extremely worrisome to me as a viewer without any specialist knowledge of the community pharmacy sector, as it gave a strong implication that Lloydspharmacy had dispensed stolen prescription drugs, which were unsafe.
MHRA chief executive Ian Hudson told C+D yesterday: “It is important to note these were legitimate medicines...and the risk to the patients was very low”. Even more importantly, he added that “there is no evidence any of these medicines made it to patients”.
Mr Hudson stressed that the EU Falsified Medicines Directive (FMD) is now in effect. As of February 2019, all medicines in the UK carry a unique barcode and “additional safety features”, which “allow verification of the authenticity of prescription-only medications”, Mr Hudson added.
Recognising past errors is crucial to making progress in medicines safety, but the documentary failed to highlight the new measures that have already been brought in to ensure that medicines can be traced through the system.
I could imagine that as a patient this information is something which would have reassured me that measures have been taken to ensure the supply chain is as watertight as it can be. Failing to do this may have had the effect of causing patients to stop taking medication, or to lose trust in their pharmacist. Surely, the danger to the public this poses is far greater than that of medicines stolen five years ago?
McKesson expressed its disappointment to C+D at the failure of Dispatches to focus more on the significant change that the FMD has introduced, as medicines can now be tracked by barcode. This would have “helped put patients’ minds at rest about medicines safety”, it added.
The documentary uncovered holes in the medicine supply chain, as well as highlighting how trading of prescription drugs works across the country. But it ultimately risked insinuating that Lloydspharmacy are failing to put patient safety first, without solid evidence to prove it.
Dispatches: How Safe Are Your Medicines? aired on Channel 4 at 8pm on June 17. Catch up on 4OD.