More than 80% of UK pharmacists say it is now more difficult than ever to obtain branded medicines and many expect things to get worse next year, a new survey shows.

The annual Chemist and Druggist Stock Survey has been told by some pharmacists that more than 50 drugs are still out of stock at their wholesalers, and some of the most difficult to obtain include products such as Lundbeck’s antidepressant Cipralex (escitalopram), Novartis’ breast cancer drug Femara (letrozole), Sinemet (carbidopa/levodopa) for Parkinson’s disease and Eli Lilly’s Zyprexa (olanzapine) for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Over 70% of pharmacists said they were “very concerned” that their patients had been affected by the shortages, and 93% reported that they had had to ask a general practitioner (GP) to change a prescription because of difficulties of obtaining a drug.

The survey found that supply shortages have worsened despite the summit called in March by the government and continuing discussions between manufacturers, wholesalers and pharmacy groups to try to resolve the situation, which has been caused by the UK becoming a net exporter of medicines as a result of the weakness of sterling. While manufacturers continue to blame parallel exports for the shortages, many pharmacists responding to the survey expressed frustration with drugmakers’ quota systems.

Responding to the survey findings, health minister Earl Howe said the programme of work agreed at the summit to tackle the shortages is being taken forward, but industry spokesmen said that urgent action was now needed by the government as the problem was worsening, despite joint efforts by industry and government.

“Manufacturers have supplied more than enough medicines to satisfy patient demand in the UK but there is still not enough getting through to the front line,” said Richard Barker, director-general of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), The industry group has presented two “very specific” proposals to the government which the industry believes will solve the problem, he added.

The first of these is to make a clear separation in the roles of pharmacist and wholesaler, as is done in a number of European countries, given that the shortages are being caused by a minority of pharmacists trading medicines intended for UK patients, said Dr Barker.

Secondly, the ABPI is calling on the government to introduce “much more stringent criteria for the holders of wholesaler dealer licences, to ensure they have the professional qualifications to fulfil their obligations responsibly and have appropriate facilities to hold a full range of NHS products,” he added.