Healthcare professionals, such as myself, are often held responsible when hospitals experience shortages of medication. Meanwhile, politicians are able to avoid any consequences.
In recent years, the issue of medicine shortages in the UK has frequently been highlighted on the front pages of newspapers. As a doctor working directly with patients, I witness the impact of this unstable medicine supply chain firsthand.
As an employee at a major urban hospital, I am accustomed to encountering dissatisfied patients who have endured lengthy waits in the clinic for treatment. However, it is particularly challenging when I must inform them that the typical medication we would administer is currently unavailable. In this case, they will either have to take a substitute or extend their stay in the hospital.
Over the past year, I have become aware of patients who have been unable to access necessary medication for common conditions like ADHD, diabetes, and acne. This has resulted in them either going without treatment or having to settle for less effective alternatives. The recent proposal for EU members to collaborate in stockpiling essential medicines will likely exacerbate shortages in the UK.
Many patients express feeling that others are receiving superior treatment in comparison to themselves, and in certain aspects, they are correct. How am I supposed to address this with them? Healthcare providers are facing a challenging predicament as they try to justify the compromises being made in patient care. This heightens concerns about the growing negativity and mistreatment directed towards NHS staff, which has been on the rise in recent times. These factors contribute to the belief shared by both patients and healthcare professionals that the healthcare system is failing to support the most vulnerable individuals.
It is concerning to witness the practical consequences of shortages in specific medications. Individuals who depend on these medications to manage their ADHD are experiencing extended periods without access, even though it is crucial for their mental well-being during a challenging winter season. This lack of medication is preventing some from functioning normally, causing them to be unable to work and perform simple daily tasks until their prescription is filled at the pharmacy.
The issue is comparable with certain anti-epileptic drugs, the lack of which can pose a significant risk. Individuals who are not receiving the proper medication may experience seizures that necessitate induced comas, resulting in life-altering consequences. Fortunately, I have not encountered any cases stemming from shortages, but as a physician, this is a concern that I fear could arise if the supply shortage is not resolved.
The medication permethrin, which is commonly used to treat scabies, is currently facing a shortage. This is concerning as scabies cases are increasing in Britain and the lack of permethrin may prevent prompt treatment and potentially lead to further spread of the infection. In some cases, patients with suspected scabies are being advised to isolate in hospital, which does not effectively eliminate the parasite and puts others at risk of getting infected. This also results in a longer hospital stay for those affected.
During the winter season, the NHS often faces a shortage of hospital beds. This means that patients who would typically be discharged with medication are instead being treated in the hospital. This has negative consequences for both the NHS and the communities they serve.
There is currently a lack of the medication Sando-K, commonly used in hospitals to address low potassium levels. As a result, doctors in certain regions are having to prescribe an intravenous potassium chloride solution, which poses a higher risk of complications for elderly patients with multiple health conditions.
Various factors have been proposed as the underlying reason for the lack of supply, including Brexit, higher taxes on pharmaceutical companies, and production problems. However, regardless of the true cause, it is evident that the lack of action from political leaders is exacerbating the issue. Recent data shows that there has been a significant increase in medication shortages since 2022, and it is not helpful for the government to continually repeat the same excuses whenever this occurs.
We have been enduring this prolonged challenge, so why are our leaders hesitant to take action? It is unacceptable that in modern-day Britain, our medicine supply is unreliable to the point where healthcare professionals must make sacrifices to properly care for patients.
It is important for patients to understand that the staff, who often put in 60-hour work weeks or more to take care of them, are not to blame. As doctors, our primary responsibility of caring for our communities is becoming increasingly difficult. Our political leaders must take immediate action to resolve this issue before more lives are negatively impacted.
Ammad Butt is a freelance writer and foundation doctor at University Hospitals Birmingham