Health Secretary Sajid Javid has met with pharmaceutical companies as part of efforts to boost the supply of treatments for the symptoms of menopause.
Mr Javid said the meeting is one of the steps the Government is taking to “ensure women can access the HRT (hormone replacement therapy) they need”.
Rising demand – as a result of greater awareness around the menopause and more confidence among GPs in prescribing HRT – has led to supply issues.
The Department of Health (DH) said other factors might also be impacting supply, related to manufacturing, capacity constraints and commercial decisions.
The meeting involved major pharmaceutical firms including Aspen Pharmacare, Gedeon Richter, Novartis, Novo Nordisk, Orion, Pfizer, Theramex, Viatris and representatives from community pharmacies.
It also included Besins-Healthcare, the firm behind popular HRT treatment Oestrogel.
DH confirmed its intention to work with industry to do what is necessary to fix the HRT supply issue.
The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) said collaboration between Government, industry and the NHS is “an important part of the solution”, describing the shortage of some HRT products as “a complex problem”.
Last month, the Government announced that vaccine taskforce director general Madelaine McTernan had been appointed to spearhead a new HRT supply taskforce.
DH also said it was issuing serious shortage protocols (SSPs) to limit the dispensing of three products in high demand.
We are looking at wider solutions – such as improving the communication between the government, manufacturers and pharmacists – and understand how the market might change to ensure demand is being met now, as well as in the future.
In a joint statement following Thursday’s meeting, Mr Javid, Ms McTernan, women’s health minister Maria Caulfield and manufacturers and suppliers at the round table said: “Every woman who needs hormone replacement therapy should be able to access it quickly and without hassle.
“It’s positive that awareness of HRT is increasing as it can help women manage their menopausal symptoms.
“We’re continuing to work collaboratively and transparently to meet demand and boost supply.
“We are looking at wider solutions – such as improving the communication between the Government, manufacturers and pharmacists – and understand how the market might change to ensure demand is being met now, as well as in the future.”
Thorrun Govind, chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) in England, said two simple steps could be taken to address issues on the ground.
She said pharmacists should be allowed to provide alternatives if the drug on the prescription is not available, and then be able to go in and update the patient’s records to show that.
She told the PA news agency: “It’s all bureaucracy. At the moment I can’t do anything, I’ve got to go back to the prescriber. This (change) would mean that even if I’ve got the drugs sat on the bench next to me I can give it to the patient straight away and write on the record to say that I’d done that.
“If you think about the other aspect of this – prescribers are really busy as well and HRT prescribing has doubled since 2017. So if we really want to reduce the bureaucracy for patients to access treatment, then this is the prime way to do that.”
ABPI chief executive Richard Torbett said collaboration and the removal of restrictions on prescribing of products in local areas could both “help smooth supply and demand”.
He said: “Intelligence sharing to determine demand is absolutely crucial and will allow companies to take action to maintain supply wherever possible.
“Removing restrictions on prescribing of products in local areas could also prevent local variation in care and in prescribing practice, which in turn means medicines are less likely to run out of stock.
“Taken together, this should help smooth supply and demand, and help patients access treatments.”
The National Pharmacy Association said it was good that something was being done to “grip the matter”, but echoed calls for pharmacists to be given greater flexibility when faced with supply issues.
Gareth Jones, its director of external affairs, said: “The overarching issue is one of supply failing to keep up with the rapidly rising demand in this country.
“As experts in medicines, pharmacists should be given greater flexibility to take decisions at the point of care to manage supplies. This includes the authority to amend prescriptions or share stock amongst pharmacies when to do so could help maintain supplies.”
The RPS said prescriptions for HRT have more than doubled in England over the past five years, from 238,000 in January 2017 to almost 538,000 in December 2021.