There was a sharp rise in overall scripts processed in April compared to the same time last year, with particularly high demand for respiratory medicines
Newly released data shows there was a nearly 20% increase in PBS/RPBS scripts processed in April 2020 compared to April last year.
According to Services Australia, there were 18.6 million scripts processed this April compared with 15.6 million scripts in April 2019.
Demand for respiratory medicines increased, with 1.3 million services processed for these medicines in April 2020 compared to 808,669 in April 2019.
There was also a similar increase for the respiratory category in March.
Services for cardiovascular PBS/RPBS medicines remained the same when comparing March this year with last, but rose from 4.8 million scripts in April 2019 to 5.6 million in April 2020.
February and March data from Services Australia did not reveal the same large surge in demand across total PBS/RPBS scripts.
However the Services Australia figures relate to the volume of PBS and RPBS services that have been processed by the agency. Month is determined by the date the service was processed by Services Australia, not the date of supply by the pharmacy, and therefore the April PBS statistics also capture some dispenses from late March.
MedAdvisor, an electronic management platform used by 60% of Australian pharmacies, told AJP it saw a 20% spike in dispenses over March compared to the same month in 2019.
MedAdvisor CEO Robert Read said: “The 20% increase we saw in dispenses over the month of March shows just how hard pharmacists were working to keep up with demand.”
He added that numbers are returning to normal through April and into May.
In addition to the rise in consumer demand seen in March and April, further pressure may have been placed on the supply chain by pharmacies stocking up on medicines at the beginning of the pandemic in order to cope with anticipated demand.
The National Pharmaceutical Services Association (NPSA) reported volumes were up more than 70% in March compared to the same time last year.
“The rise in March warehouse withdrawal volumes were caused by the hoarding, pharmacies replenishing stocks as best they could plus stocking up in anticipation of high April demand and/or worries about running out of stock,” industry analyst and pharmacy business consultant Bruce Annabel recently told AJP.
Across his clients Mr Annabel noted a spike in volume particularly during the last week of March, which he said was probably a record for the majority of pharmacies and which continued into April.
This early run on medicines left many pharmacies across the country struggling to get stock across numerous product lines in what Mr Annabel describes as “supply chaos” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
These shortages have been roundly criticised by some pharmacy groups, particularly those representing small and rural pharmacies.
However Mr Annabel argued that difficulties in accessing stock did not discriminate, but rather those who got on the front foot early, regardless of size, were at an advantage.
“I know of many pharmacies, including warehouse pharmacies, that found themselves running out of certain stock lines,” he said.
“It was difficult for everyone, particularly the wholesalers. I think the key point here is the extraordinary demand driven by fearful consumers who deluged pharmacies created enormous trauma throughout the supply chain.
“And until the dispensed supply limits were put in place, the system simply couldn’t cope with such an unprecedented demand, despite the huge investments made in recent times by wholesalers in very efficient distribution systems.”
NPSA Chairman Mark Hooper told AJP last month: “Like all international jurisdictions, Australia is feeling the effects of unprecedented international freight disruption.
“In early March following panic buying and a surge in demand, the NPSA was proactive in initiating adjustments to the CSO Deeds and implementing measures to help manage the volatile early response to the pandemic and preserve medicine availability,” he said.
Mr Hooper added that the NPSA has been working with the government, the TGA, pharmaceutical companies and the Pharmacy Guild of Australia “to address circumstances that have never been encountered before”.
The TGA has maintained that drug shortages experienced by pharmacists are not national shortages but rather temporary, local-level “stock-outs” due to stockpiling of medicines.
Meanwhile global drug shortages have been foreshadowed following restrictions of international commercial and trading channels as a means for containment of the virus.
The global drug supply could be severely get impacted by the pandemic, and the results could be “catastrophic”, say researchers in a recent article about global drug shortages due to COVID-19.
Such shortages may be triggered by many reasons, such as inadequate quantities of raw materials, legislative, manufacturing, or procurement issues, and drug discontinuation from the market, explain the researchers.
“Other than the shortages caused by increased demand for repurposed drugs, the fact that many medications and raw materials are sourced from countries like India and China has also caused direct shortages,” they say in Research in Social and Administrative Pharmacy.
“It is still unknown when the global trading channels will reopen … during these times, the drug shortage could lead to serious consequences when it comes to patient outcomes.
“The risk of medication errors may be heightened, including that of drug omission, dispensing, or administration,” they say, highlighting that the role of pharmacists during medicines shortages is more crucial than ever.