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Alberta pharmacists turn to social media to spread word about drug shortages

Nov. 20, 2018: There are shortages of just about every type of drug, according to Edmonton pharmacists and some say part of the problem is a program, meant to reduce costs, is shrinking supply. Su-Ling Goh explains.

A group of Alberta pharmacists is shining a spotlight on the issue of drug shortages with a social media campaign called #abdrugshortage.

The initiative was created after one pharmacist shared a photo of his invoice on Facebook.

“I posted a shot of my invoice from one of our drug orders to show that 50 per cent of it had not come,” said Suhas Thaleshvar, a prescribing pharmacist who also owns a Medicine Shoppe in Sherwood Park.

“We order X amount of lines of drugs per day and half of it doesn’t come,” he stressed.

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It also means he’s turning away at least a dozen patients per week — people looking for anything from Wellbutrin to hepatitis or yellow fever vaccines.

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READ MORE: Impact of Canada-wide anti-depressant shortage has Edmonton pharmacists worried

“When I analyzed the responses that I got, I realized that patients really had no clue that there were all these drug shortages.”

Thaleshvar said pharmacists are seeing widespread shortages across just about every category of prescription medicine required.

“I don’t know the actual statistics; all I know is that in my 25 years as a pharmacist in Alberta, I’ve never seen shortages like this before. It’s impacting how we deal with people.”

READ MORE: EpiPen shortage may drag into next year: Health Canada

After the huge response to his post, Thaleshvar started thinking about ways to draw more attention to this issue.

“It was just impulsive that I posted that one photo and it went crazy,” he said.

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“I just brainstormed… What if every pharmacy or every pharmacist, every pharmacy assistant, every pharmacy technician — everyone has access to social media — posted a story or a statistic or a photo or a video of some way the drug shortage affected their practice that day?”

Suhas Thaleshvar, a Sherwood Park pharmacist and owner of Medicine Shoppe, shared his half-filled invoice of medicine online Nov. 2018.
Suhas Thaleshvar, a Sherwood Park pharmacist and owner of Medicine Shoppe, shared his half-filled invoice of medicine online Nov. 2018. Courtesy: Facebook/Suhas Thaleshvar

Together, a group of Alberta pharmacists and staff will start sharing these posts on Monday using the hashtag #abdrugshortage. Thaleshvar expects there could be more than 1,000 posts per day.

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“The stories may range from simply: ’50 per cent of my order didn’t come today.’ It could be a video, it could a photo, it could be maybe sharing a patient’s story.

“We encourage patients to get involved as well if they’ve had a situation where a drug shortage created a great deal of angst or stress with them,” he said.

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The social media campaign has a few goals, Thaleshvar said. The first is to bring more awareness to this critical issue.

READ MORE: Hepatitis A, B and other travel vaccines facing shortages across Canada

“One thing I noticed when I did that post is (patients) were sort of looking to us to be an advocate,” he said. “This is a completely grassroots thing that several of us pharmacists decided to do.

“We just want the awareness out there to start asking some really tough questions as far as what Canada’s drug supply situation looks like?”

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The second goal is to change the way drug policies in Canada are made or altered.

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“Often decisions are made regarding drug policy without recognizing that pharmacists on the front line would have a very clear understanding of what the ripple effect of what certain policy changes could be and that we should be consulted.”

Watch below- Nov. 19, 2018: A Medicine Shoppe in Alberta is down to two bottles of Wellbutrin XL and a nation-wide drug shortage is forcing him to ration them out to already anxious patients. Su-Ling Goh reports.

Canada-wide Wellbutrin shortage worries pharmacists
Canada-wide Wellbutrin shortage worries pharmacists

The Pan-Canadian Pharmaceutical Alliance has provinces negotiating together with drug companies for lower prices. In April, 70 common medications were discounted by up to 40 per cent.

“That sounds like a great idea, I’m a taxpayer as well so lower drug prices is good for everyone you would think, right?” Thaleshvar said.

READ MORE: Canada pays 2nd highest prices for medication for common conditions: study

But Canada buys less than two per cent of the global market. Critics say that now makes Canada low priority for drug suppliers.

“When you’re talking about a supply and demand equation, the math doesn’t quite work if you’re demanding low prices without the volume to back you up,” Thaleshvar explained.

“When a drug is short, they often try to tell you when it could be anticipated to be available. Some drugs are not showing as available until March or later in the year of 2019,” he added.

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“There’s way more to this situation than shipping delays.”

READ MORE: Generic blood pressure, depression drugs to see up to 90% price cuts

The Canadian Pharmacists’ Association will soon launch a survey of pharmacists about the frequency and types of shortages. The group is calling on governments to do more to prevent supply issues.

“It’s very frustrating as a clinician to not be able to help your patients stay safe.”

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