Ireland's medicines shortages have worsened significantly in the last 12 months, and the government must intervene to ensure that patients get the drugs they need, pharmacists have warned.

98% of pharmacists have told the Irish Pharmacy Union (IPU) that they have noticed drug shortages in the last year, while 91% say these have got worse over the period and 93% expect them to worsen over the next 12 months.

44% of pharmacists believe that patients' health outcomes have been harmed by the shortages, and the IPU also reports that pharmacy staff spend an average eight hours each month working to resolve the problems.

This is time that would be better spent tending to patients’ needs, said IPU president Rory O'Donnell, and he warned: "the longer the situation is allowed to continue, the greater the impact on patients' health."

Currently, pharmacists are particularly reporting shortages of Eli Lilly's antidepressant/fibromyalgia treatment Cymbalta (duloxetine) and Pfizer's Lyrica (pregabalin), used in epilepsy, fibromyalgia and neuropathic pain, among other products.

The IPU also warns that Ireland's planned introduction of reference pricing will only exacerbate the situation, particularly if the reference price is set too low.

"Adding to these concerns is the fact that pharmacists typically receive little or no warning that these medicines are going out of stock and there is often little information on when these stocks will be replenished," said Mr O'Donnell.

"Ultimately, it is up to the Department of Health to ensure that patients have continuity of supply of medicines and we would ask that steps be taken as a matter of urgency to solve the existing problems of medicines shortages and to ensure that further shortages do not occur," he concluded.

Responding, the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association (IPHA), representing the branded drugmakers, pointed out that key provisions of the state/IPHA supply agreement, which was renewed last October, are designed to ensure continuity as far as is possible.

From time to time, disruptions can emerge with individual products because of manufacturing processes. However, more recently shortages have resulted from products being traded across European markets when the price in one country has been pushed well below that in other countries, says the IPHA, pointing out that these cross-border trading issues are beyond its members’ control.

The Department of Health says it is working to manage drug shortages, so that the impact on patients is minimised, say local reports.