The issue of drug shortages is coming to the fore again as a survey by GP Online finds that four out of five doctors are not able to give patients their first choice of treatment.

Eighty-two percent of 441 GPs responding to the survey said drug shortages had forced them to prescribe a second-choice medicine in the past 12 months, and 18 percent of these said patients had experienced a negative effect - an adverse event or reduced efficacy - as a result.

"The issue of secure drug supply is an on-going problem that no one has been able to adequately address," said Andrew Green, chairman of the GPC clinical and prescribing subcommittee. "Sometimes problems can be very localised, so you can have difficulties in one part of the country and not in others. That makes informing GPs really quite a difficult task to do".

He went on to note that GPs usually only know of drug shortages when patients return because they were unable to get their prescription, and suggested doctors might welcome a central alert system to warn of low stocks.

Drug shortages in branded medicines, which occur when demand is outstripping supply, are caused by various reasons including manufacturing problems, medicine recalls, safety concerns or parallel exports.

"The reasons for instances of medicines shortages are often both complex and varied and we have consistently worked with our members, the Department of Health and others, including regulators, wholesalers, pharmacists and parallel distributors, in order to minimise any impact on patients," said Dr Rick Greville, ABPI Director, Wales and Distribution & Supply.

"We are committed to closely monitoring the availability of branded medicines in the UK and will continue our engagement with all involved in the medicines' journey to the patient," he added.