How did COVID-19 really impact dispensing?

Script dispensing numbers went crazy in March due to the pandemic rush, with demand for one group of medicines increasing by 87%, a new report shows

Volume of PBS scripts dispensed in March 2020 spiked 23.1% higher than in March 2019, most significantly for medicines to treat conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a new report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) has revealed.

This equated to 31 million scripts dispensed in March 2020 compared with 25.2 million in March 2019.

During the same month, there was an 87.4% increase in the number of scripts dispensed for respiratory system medicines in March 2020 compared to the corresponding period in 2019.

This was largely driven by the group of medicines used to treat respiratory related conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“There were unusually high volumes of scripts dispensed in March 2020, coinciding with the introduction of restrictions nationally,” said the report.

Earlier this year the National Pharmaceutical Services Association (NPSA) reported volumes were up more than 70% in March compared to the same time last year.

Industry experts at the time suggested the particularly high rise in March warehouse withdrawal volumes were caused by 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.

Demand for dispensed medicines didn’t last long, however. The AIHW said the March spike was followed by a decrease in April. Restrictions had been placed on medicines dispensing in the second half of March.

In the first eight months of the year together, there was only a 0.6% increase in the number of scripts dispensed.

However the impacts of the surge in demand were felt in the months to come.

In mid April, small and rural pharmacies were reporting problems obtaining medications such as Ventolin, Seretide and Symbicort. At the time, the Small Pharmacies Group (SPG) expressed concerns that rural pharmacies and patients were being unfairly impacted by shortages or ‘stock outs’.

From March 2020, the Australian Government also introduced a raft of changes including the introduction of digital image based prescriptions.

During that month, there was a 17.4% increase in the number of original scripts and a 27.3% increase in repeat scripts, compared to the same period in 2019.

“This change in consumer behaviour was due to stockpiling at the start of the pandemic. The pattern for the remaining months was reasonably similar,” said AIHW.

There was also a 21.5% increase in scripts dispensed concurrently in March 2020 compared to March 2019.

“This rapid rise coincided with the Australian Government Therapeutic Goods Administration advising about potential medicine shortages and the Department of Health requesting health practitioners limit this practice,” said the AIHW.

Restrictions led to a 72% decrease in the number of scripts dispensed concurrently in April 2020, compared to April 2019, and this downward trend continued throughout the subsequent months in 2020.

There was also a significant decrease in scripts dispensed for anti-infectives (predominantly antibiotics and antivirals) from 2.5 million in March 2020 to 1.5 million in April.

This downward trend carried through to August 2020 compared to the same months in 2019, which the AIHW said “could be associated with COVID-19 measures such as physical distancing and improved hand hygiene practices” and corresponding with reports of lower numbers of influenza cases in Australia.

See the full report here

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