Sajid Javid is being urged to change the law to allow pharmacists to change prescriptions during medication shortages, as it turned out that some women travel hundreds of miles to seek hormonal drugs.
There has been an acute shortage of some HRT products used by around 1 million women in the UK to treat menopausal symptoms.
Claire Anderson, president of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, said local pharmacists should be able to dispense replacement versions of prescription drugs without having to contact the prescribing physician – typically a general practitioner – each time.
Currently, the law in England stipulates that they must only give the exact prescription.
The proposed shake-up will also allow pharmacists to make changes in the amounts, strength and formulation of HRT and other dispensed drugs.
“Currently, pharmacists cannot change prescriptions for HRT, so they have to refer women back to their GP when a medication is not available,” Anderson said.
“Allowing pharmacists to do so will save time for patients, pharmacists and doctors, as well as reduce anxiety for women waiting for medication.”
On Sunday, Javid announced plans to appoint an HRT zar to deal with the deficiency. The number of HRT products prescribed in the UK has more than doubled in the last five years, which has contributed to stocks running out, while manufacturers have reported supply problems.
Some women share their prescriptions or travel hundreds of miles to find products, and there are fears that some women may become suicidal as a result of their symptoms not being treated.
Anderson said she welcomed Javid’s plan to recruit an HRT tsar, but added: “With continued concerns from patient groups about drug supply to people with other disorders, this appointment should be part of a broader government strategy to ensure patients’ access to medicine.”
She said: “Pharmacies spend many hours dealing with medication shortages when we would rather talk to patients about their care. One solution would be to allow pharmacists to make minor changes to a prescription when something is sold out. This is faster for patients and more effectively for the NHS.
“Difficulty accessing HRT unfairly affects women, affects their mental health and exacerbates health inequalities – this is an area that affects not only our patients but also health and care professionals.”
The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC), which represents NHS community pharmacies in the UK, said demand exceeded the supply of a small number of HRT drugs and longer 12-month prescriptions exacerbated the situation.
“Disruptions to drug supply can fluctuate very quickly and on a very local basis,” a PSNC spokesman said.
“The situation is very variable depending on demand, local prescription and existing stock at the pharmacies, and it is difficult to get a snapshot of where the supply is located, as it is constantly moving through the supply chain.
“We know that some pharmacies receive HRT prescriptions from women and prescribers hundreds of miles away, but we have nothing to confirm whether there is any significant regional variation in supplies.”
Janet Morrison, CEO of PSNC, said: “The current disruption of the supply of some HRT drugs seems to affect only a small number of drugs, and most pharmacies report that they are able to quickly help women in need for medicine.
“The disorder seems to be driven by sudden increases in the demand for some drugs and by the fact that some prescriptions are prescribed for much longer periods than usual.
“It is incredibly worrying for women if they are not able to access the drugs on which they are dependent. Pharmacy teams know this and they will do everything they can to help. In many cases, other formulations may be available, although it may take some time for pharmacies to find out as they will need to talk to your doctor first. “
Labor MP Carolyn Harris, co-chair of the British Menopause Task Force, welcomed ministers’ promises to address the shortage.
She said: “The problem with menopause is that women have not been listened to for too long, women have been ignored, they have been prescribed and diagnosed with other conditions, and menopause was not even considered.”