Nova Scotia·Health Hacks

How to protect yourself against drug shortages

Many of us have forgotten to refill a prescription at one time or another, but what happens when you run out of the medication you need due to a drug shortage?

1 in 4 Canadians have experienced shortages in the last 3 years

'On any given day, your pharmacist doesn’t have access to between 500 and 700 drugs that would typically be out there on the market,' said health-care columnist Mary Jane Hampton. (David Donnelly/CBC)

This is part of a series from CBC's Information Morning where Halifax health-care consultant Mary Jane Hampton discusses her "health hacks" — ways to make your experience with the health-care system better.

Many of us have forgotten to refill a prescription at one time or another, but what happens when you run out of the medication you need due to a drug shortage?

According to health-care consultant Mary Jane Hampton, one in four Canadians have run into a drug shortage or back-order at the pharmacy in the last three years. Such shortages, she said, can occur for several reasons.

"It can be something as straight up as the company that makes the drug can't get the ingredients to continue its production," she said.

Hampton said another reason for drug shortages can be related to the economics of pharmaceuticals.

"The generic version of the drug becomes so cheap that the drug becomes very popular," she said. "It can get to a tipping point that is actually more expensive to produce the drug than the money that they will bring in by selling it."

Hampton said this economic issue is made worse when there is only one manufacturer creating a certain kind of drug.

Mary Jane Hampton is a Halifax-based health-care consultant and CBC columnist. (Robert Short/CBC)

She said drugs that often make the short-supply list include everything from EpiPens, to treatments for bladder cancer, to antidepressants. Drug companies are required to warn Health Canada at least six months ahead of time of an anticipated supply problem, or within five days of learning about one.

"Since that legislation has passed, there have been almost 4,500 drugs that have been added to that list, that have been impacted by a shortage of one kind or another," she said. "On any given day, your pharmacist doesn't have access to between 500 and 700 drugs that would typically be out there on the market for people."

Hampton said drug companies have absolutely no obligation to their customers.

"The very harsh reality is that drug companies are in the business to make money, so if there isn't a business plan for a drug, they stop making it, or they stop making sufficient quantities," she said.

How to prepare for drug shortages

Hampton said patients who rely on long-term prescriptions should have a conversation with their doctor and pharmacist about any potential vulnerabilities in the supply. Health-care providers can often recommend alternative treatments to consider in the event of a shortage.

"You're probably smart to make sure that you have a fairly long runway of being able to access it, or be ready to get into some contingency planning if you're not," she said.

Hampton said pharmacists have a better sense of long-term drug supply forecasts, as they receive shortage alerts and are able to source supplies. She said curious patients can also visit a third-party website called Drug Shortages Canada to arm themselves with some information before they talk to their provider.

Should I stockpile my drugs?

Hampton warned advance stockpiles aren't a good idea.

"Drugs expire, and you may end up with a whole load of medication that you don't really need," she said.

According to Hampton, it's "better to have a good plan in place with the provider who is writing the prescription, and the relationship with your pharmacist."

With files from CBC’s Information Morning

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