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A pharmacist dispenses pills.

Pharmaceutical companies in Canada have dodged a bullet by coming up with a plan to deal with shortages of prescription drugs.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq took the pharmaceutical industry to task in August for failing to figure out ways to deal with a growing number of shortages.

She told industry and medical associations that unless they figured out a way to alert doctors to a growing number of shortages by Sept. 30, she would impose a solution.

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In letters obtained by The Canadian Press, the companies respond to the threat by agreeing to pool information on shortages and pending shortages, and then post the details "in coming weeks" on two existing public websites.

They also pledged to build a more comprehensive one-stop website that will become a permanent, reliable source of information about drug shortages – as long as Health Canada helps with funding.

But they stop short of agreeing on ways to actually reduce the shortages.

"As you know, the underlying causes of drug shortages are complex and international in scope," the working group of eight associations says in a letter to the Minister, dated Sept. 28.

"Our group has had some discussions on measures that can be taken to alleviate shortages, but certainly more discussion is required."

Pharmacists raised the alarm a year ago, after a survey showed that shortages of drugs were becoming more common.

More than 90 per cent of respondents said they had had trouble tracking down a medication in the previous week. And almost all respondents said they had seen a deterioration in the previous year.

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They warned the repercussions were serious. Patients were becoming frustrated, turning to less effective alternatives or stopping their medication altogether, said the poll for the Canadian Pharmacists Association.

Among the top 10 drugs in short supply across Canada were anti-depressants, antibiotics to treat infections, and drugs to treat nausea, hypertension, and mental and emotional disorders.

In looking for reasons why so many drugs were in such short supply, the pharmacists' association found a complex and fragile supply chain that was susceptible to disruptions. No one was willing to take responsibility for the entire system, the report found, and drug companies were too competitive to contemplate any kind of information-sharing.

"Neither government nor any third party has an oversight function for the drug distribution system, and therefore drug supply is dictated in large measure by the market," the association's report of December, 2010, found.

"Due to the reluctance of individual manufacturers to share information on supply and manufacturing programs, it is difficult to predict when shortages will occur, for how long, and affecting which drugs."

The report noted that the current bout of shortages is more widespread and prolonged than previous upheavals, and is happening in many countries.

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Opposition Liberals have been hounding the Conservatives for months to take action. Critic Hedy Fry is calling for parliamentary hearings on the issue this fall.

The pharmacists' top recommendation is for all parties to collaborate in bolstering the supply chain – something Ms. Aglukkaq pushed them into doing this fall.

The new system will see the associations representing generic and brand-name drug manufacturers collect information from hundreds of member companies about current and impending drug shortages, the letter to the minister says.

For now, national-level information will be posted on the existing websites of the Saskatchewan Drug Information Service and Vendredi PM.

A more comprehensive and permanent monitoring system should be ready to roll next year, they say, as long as funding is available.

Ms. Aglukkaq has welcomed the plan as a "positive first step," she says in a letter to industry players dated Oct. 7.

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But she is not letting the industry off the hook quite yet. She wants the companies to find ways to actually reduce shortages. And she doesn't mention funding.

"I also ask all industry working group members to continue to consider measures beyond information sharing to create stability in their supply chains and prevent drug shortages from occurring," she wrote.

The Canadian Press

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