Watch as Sunderland pharmacists warn of healthcare 'crisis' with medication shortages due to funding cuts

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‘Three quarters of pharmacies are currently in the red, with ten closing each week’

Sunderland pharmacists have warned of a pharmaceutical “crisis” with many having to close, a shortage of vital medication and people’s health being put at risk unless the Government increases funding to a “sustainable level”.

Pharmacists Ilyas Zaheer and Chris Vaughan, who own Herdman Chemists in Ryhope, highlighted a chronic funding crisis after budgets were cut in 2016 from £2.8bn to 2.6bn - the level it still remains at eight years later.

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Herdman Chemists is supporting the Save Our Pharmacies campaign which has cited this represents a real terms cut of 30%.

It’s a situation which Ilyas and Chris say is unsustainable.

Herdman Chemists owners Chris Vaughan and Ilyas Zaheer have grave concerns over funding and shortages in medication supplies.Herdman Chemists owners Chris Vaughan and Ilyas Zaheer have grave concerns over funding and shortages in medication supplies.
Herdman Chemists owners Chris Vaughan and Ilyas Zaheer have grave concerns over funding and shortages in medication supplies. | sn

Ilyas said: “Funding has been reduced while costs of medication, wages and energy have all increased.

“The Government has increased funding for GP surgeries and dentistry but has reduced funding for pharmacies which are a frontline service.

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“It’s particularly frustrating when the Government is promoting its Pharmacy First policy with chemists expected to provide consultations and medications as a first point of call to take the pressure off GPs’ surgeries and hospitals, yet they are not funding it. 

“It is putting pharmacists in a really difficult position as we have a duty of care to provide the medicines people need but we are the only industry I am aware of which is knowingly making a loss on many of the products we provide.

“At this time of year a lot of people suffer from hay-fever and we lose £4 on every nasal spray we sell. We absorb the cost as it is something people need but if we sell 80 sprays each month then our losses soon add up, and this is just one example.”

It’s this chronic underfunding which pharmacists feel is in part behind a shortage of vital medications being experienced in Sunderland and across the country.

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Analysis by the National Pharmacy Association (NPA), who launched the Save Our Pharmacies campaign, found 50 serious shortage protocols (SSPs) were issued by the Department of Health and Social Care between 2022 and 2024, compared to 15 between 2019 and 2021 - a rise of more than 230%.

The NPA also revealed that four SSPs were put out over a three-day period in May (2024), the same number which were issued for the whole of 2020.

SSPs were introduced to enable pharmacists to look for alternatives when there is a serious shortage in the supply of certain drugs.

Ilyas, who has worked in the pharmaceutical care sector for 10 years, said: “This is certainly something we have experienced.

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“Each day you check your stock. When I first started as a pharmacist you may have a couple of items out of stock but today we have eight medications which are not available and it is often five or six.

“We have experienced shortages in things such as weight loss drugs, pancreatic medication and anti-psychotics. These drugs have been prescribed by a psychiatrist for good reason and so we can’t just take it upon ourselves to change them.

“We are ultimately experiencing shortages across the board due to market forces and supply and demand. 

“Suppliers know pharmacies have a duty of care and prices have increased to an unsustainable level.

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“Some pharmacies simply can’t afford to purchase certain medicines at their current prices and either have to take a loss or look for cheaper alternatives.

“Obviously if people can’t get the medicines they have been prescribed when they need them then this can put people’s health at risk.

“A lot of these drugs are medications people need for a whole host of health reasons.”

It’s a situation which is also having a massive impact on the workload of our city’s pharmacists and the financial viability of community chemists.

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Chris, 40, said: “We have two chemists here in Ryhope. We aren’t in a position to employ managers and are having to run both chemists ourselves, working extremely long hours to cover the workload and lack of funding.

“The situation is compounded by the shortage of medications as we are often having to source alternatives which means increased stress and workload.

“We then have to go back to the doctors with our recommendations and wait for it to be prescribed and signed off.

“We are often here working until 7pm or 8pm each evening.”

The NPA’s Save Our Pharmacy Campaign has highlighted how 1,400 community pharmacies have closed in the last decade, with 75% of pharmacies currently in the red and ten closing each week.

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Chris said: “The current level of funding is unsustainable. Pharmacies are in crisis and a number of chemists in our North East Pharmacy group are facing having to close their doors unless funding increases.

“We have two stores and unless funding increases in the next couple of years then we are going to have to look to potentially operate our services out of one site.”

Chris is also concerned about the potential impact on patients if medication supply moves to a predominantly online source.

He added: “If people end up ordering their prescriptions from an online service then you lose that individual care and professional guidance which I think is very sad and could potentially put patients' health at risk.

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“Medication which people need may not arrive on time and may need to be transported from other parts of the country.

“If someone needs antibiotics then they need it now, not in two or three days’ time.”

On Thursday June 20th, Ilyas and Chris will be joining other pharmacists across Sunderland and the country in a day of action, including submitting a petition to Parliament demanding increased funding.

Ilyas said: “Whilst the action to be taken has not yet been decided, we need to make people aware of the unsustainable situation pharmacies are facing.

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“We were open and worked right throughout Covid and feel completely undervalued by the Government.

“We are the first contact service for the NHS but when it comes to funding we seem to have been forgotten about.

“Our expenses have increased massively whilst our funding has gone down. This has to change or more community pharmacies will have to close which will make it even more difficult for patients to get the medicines they need.” 

The Echo contacted the Department of Health and Social Care for a response to this situation.

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We were informed they could not comment due to being “in a pre-election period” and were advised to contact individual political parties.

We have contacted the Conservative Party, who have been in Government during the period covered in this story and have not yet received a response.

Speaking in May (2024) on the issue of medication supply, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: "There are around 14,000 licensed medicines and the overwhelming majority are in good supply. Supply issues can arise for a wide range of reasons and are not specific to the UK.

"Our priority is to mitigate risks posed by those issues and to help ensure that patients continue to get the treatments they need. Thankfully most issues can be managed with minimal impact to patients.

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"We recognise the vital role pharmacies play in our healthcare system and that's why they are backed by £2.6 billion a year in government funding.”

According to the Save Our Pharmacies campaign, on average pharmacies rely on NHS funding for 90% of their income.

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