- This article is a contribution by the Pharmaceutical Group of the European Union (PGEU)

There are a number of reasons why some medicines are sometimes unavailable. The medicines supply chain is highly complex and its efficiency relies on the performance of each individual supply chain actor including raw material suppliers, manufacturers, wholesalers, community pharmacies and intermediaries. If there is a disruption at any point of the supply chain, shortages can occur. However, there is still very little reliable EU wide data available and therefore no clear understanding of the scope and extent of the problem.

Patients, who have been traditionally accustomed to a highly reliable medicines supply in Europe, find it difficult to understand why a medicine is unavailable, and often become distressed. If a prescribed medicine is not available, the patient is usually prescribed an alternative, which in some cases is not adequate and may be more expensive. Where there are no alternatives available, and the patient does not receive his/her treatment, the outcome can be fatal. Ultimately, not only can this affect treatment outcomes of individual patients, but patients also lose confidence in the whole health system.

To better understand the extent of medicine shortages in the EU, the Pharmaceutical Group of the European Union (PGEU) conducted a survey among its members, national community pharmacy associations at the beginning of 2012. According to the survey results, and although some countries are more affected than others, all respondents to the survey have reported medicine shortages. According to the survey, a broad range of medicines is affected, including even basic medication such as aspirin. The survey suggests that the prevalence of medicine shortages has increased in the past year- just in the UK over 1 million branded medicine supply failures occur each year .

Shortages are of great concern to community pharmacists, and in some countries this already affects their daily practice. In the UK, pharmacy staff spend an average of three hours a week sourcing medicines, which they are not able to order from their usual wholesaler. This equates to 156 hours per UK pharmacy per year. Community pharmacists often turn to the national or regional community pharmacy network to source medicines.

This is a growing problem not only in the EU, but globally too, and it affects both richer and poorer EU Members. The causes are diverse, but the dangers are clear: patients have to wait for medicines or even have to go without them altogether. We need to tackle the multiple causes of shortages. It is time for governments to recognise that the problem is real, and to develop policy accordingly.

- PGEU Statement on Medicine Shortages.

Last modified on November 30 2012.