Q and A with the experts: Medication shortages and access during the pandemic

Thursday, May 7, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, pharmacists are reporting a spike in drug shortages.

Professor Kelly Grindrod, a pharmacist and professor at the School of Pharmacy, explains why drug shortages are occurring, which medications are affected, and how Canadians can access medications at this time. 

Kelly GrindrodWhy are we experiencing drug shortages?

It’s a perfect storm of pre-existing problems with manufacturing, the pandemic shutting down factories, a spike in global demand, and people stock-piling medications. Before the pandemic, drug shortages were already a major problem around the world. Over the last several years, the worldwide supply of generic drugs has been moving to a handful of factories in places like India and China. By centralizing manufacturing in developing countries, the goal is to reduce costs. However, this also means that issues like an earthquake, hurricane, factory fire, or a global pandemic can cause a major shortage around the world.

Which drugs are currently in short supply?

The drug shortages that we’re most concerned about are the ones used to help treat patients with COVID-19 in the ICU. These drugs are also used elsewhere such as during elective surgeries, palliative care, or Medical Assistance in Dying so shortages have downstream effects.

Other drugs that are shorted include salbutamol inhalers. Most people know these as the “blue inhalers”. The inhalers are being used in hospitals to help COVID-19 patients breathe, but they are still needed by people with asthma and chronic lung disease.

Why are pharmacies only giving out a 30-day supply of medications?

Pharmacists only have access to a limited supply of drugs. Each day a pharmacy may order 10 inhalers but it only receives 2 or 3 from the warehouse. The pharmacist has to choose to give three inhalers to one patient, or one inhaler to three patients. If one patient stockpiles inhalers, that means another patient has to go without and may end up in hospital.

While they’re similar to toilet paper shortages, drug shortages can be life-threatening. As a result, pharmacists have been instructed by the Canadian Pharmacists Association to give out only a 30-day supply of medications until the drug shortages are resolved. Right now, the 30-day limit is essential to ensure all Canadians can get their medications.

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