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Researcher pushes for tool to combat drug shortages

Jacalyn Duffin argues Canada needs a list of essential medicines that the government pledges to keep in stock

Queen’s University researcher Jacalyn Duffin and colleagues are recommending that Canada create a list of essential medicines to help protect against drug shortages.

Hundreds of countries have created an essential medicines list that typically includes between 200 and 500 medicines that the government commits to keep in stock. The list may include prescription drugs as well as over the counter drugs and natural products.

"Establishing an essential medicines list of perhaps 500 items could go a long way to ensuring availability of at least one drug for each health need encountered in ambulatory and inpatient settings,” says Dr. Duffin, who holds the Hannah Chair in the History of Medicine. "It could also be helpful as the country moves to considering a pharmacare plan and, in the meantime, would rationalize the selection of the right medication from the roughly 8,000 items currently licensed for use.”

Drug shortages, which can have serious consequences, may still occur despite having an essential medicines list, Dr. Duffin explains, because shortages elsewhere can limit domestic supplies.  However, identifying important medicines and working globally to improve availability and plan for contingencies can help governments avoid, or mitigate, shortages, she says.

“An essential medicines list, by itself, cannot solve the problem of shortages,” says Dr. Duffin. “Working nationally to measure the shortages, and globally to understand their causes are also important steps in addressing the problem.

Canada is not among the 116 other members of the World Health Organization that do use essential medicine lists, which have repeatedly been shown to improve quality uses of drugs and save on costs.

Working with Dr. Duffin on the recommendation were Gina Eom (Meds’17) and University of Toronto health economist Paul Grootendorst.

The research was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.