Shortages of raw materials used in drug manufacturing and problems along the supply chain are contributing to drug shortages in Canada, pharmacists say. ((Alden Pellett/Associated Press))

Medication shortages have become a serious problem for patients, doctors and druggists, a survey by the Canadian Pharmacists Association has found.

In some cases, doctors have been forced to prescribe less effective alternatives.

Nationally, nearly 94 per cent of pharmacists surveyed said they had trouble finding medications to fill a prescription in the past year.

"What we've seen this time is a significant level of drug shortages that's been somewhat prolonged," Dr. Jeff Poston, executive director of the CPA, said Thursday.

"I think it's a wakeup call [for] manufacturers, wholesalers, pharmacies, government regulators. Everyone needs to sort of pay attention to trying to finding a better way to reducing the incidents of shortages and trying to help pharmacists and patients and doctors to be able to deal with them more effectively."

The findings of the poll confirm that drug shortages are real and are having negative impacts on the health and well-being of patients, the report concluded.

Health affected

When the group surveyed 427 pharmacists from across Canada about shortages in October, 70 per cent said they believed the health of their patients was adversely affected.

The report listed several reasons for the shortages, including:

  • Shortages of raw materials used in drug manufacturing.
  • Stricter regulatory requirements that delay production.
  • Problems with manufacturing processes in specific plants that have delayed delivery of supply.
  • Introduction of new pricing regimes in provinces that act as a disincentive to production of particular drugs.
  • An increase in product recalls in Canada or elsewhere.
  • Monopolization of production of a particular drug by manufacturers that result in immediate shortages when production problems occur.
  • Shortage of proper container materials.

The group noted that drug shortages are not a Canadian phenomenon but are occurring worldwide, particularly in the U.S., at apparently similar levels of frequency and duration.

Since all of these factors came into play at once, the shortages affected more drugs for a longer period than before, Poston said, adding the situation seems to be improving as manufacturers work through problems.

The drug shortages tended to apply to older generics, such as antibiotics, anti-nausea and heart medications.

Poston suggested that patients contact their pharmacist early when refills are needed, rather than waiting until the last minute. That way, pharmacists can start looking for other sources of the drug or work with physicians to find alternative medications.