Pharmacists survey didn't find patients’ ‘lives’ were being put at risk

11 August 2022
What was claimed

There are fears patients’ lives are at risk due to medicine shortage.

Our verdict

The survey on which this claim is based did not reference patients’ lives being at risk, but instead spoke of a risk to patient health.

What was claimed

54% of UK-based pharmacists said medicines shortages have put patients at risk.

Our verdict

This figure is from a self-selected survey, and therefore may not be representative of all UK-based pharmacists.

“Fears patients’ lives at risk in medicine shortage”.

A front page headline in the Daily Express said: “Fears patients’ lives at risk in medicine shortage”.

The article goes on to report on the results of a survey published by The Pharmaceutical Journal on 11 August, which, according to the Journal, found that “54% of UK-based pharmacists said medicines shortages have put patients at risk in the past six months.”

The Journal’s editor, Nigel Praities, has criticised the Express’s headline, tweeting: “This headline is incorrect. Our survey of pharmacists didn't show lives were being put at risk. However, it did show that medicines shortages are at a critical level, causing considerable stress, complications and gaps in treatment.”

It’s true that the Journal’s article and survey findings did not specifically refer to a risk to patients’ “lives”. However, it did refer to patients being put “at risk” and the survey itself is not necessarily representative of the views of all UK pharmacists.

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Article referred to risk to patient health, not lives

According to the original article published in the Journal: “847 out of 1,562 (54%) UK-based pharmacists working in all sectors of the profession answered ‘Yes’ when asked if medicines shortages have put patients at risk “in the past six months”.

“Some 330 (21%) of the respondents answered ‘No’ to the same question, while 385 (25%) responded with ‘Don’t know’.”

The exact wording of the question–”In the past six months, have medicines shortages put patients at risk?” —did not distinguish between patient health, and patients’ lives.

However, Mr Praities told Full Fact that those who answered “yes” to the question were asked to specify in what way patients were put at risk, and that at no point did a pharmacist say lives were at risk. 

We’ve asked the Journal to provide us with this data, but they were unable to do so due to confidentiality reasons. But Mr Praities said that no one mentioned a situation that was life-threatening.

The article in the Journal goes on to provide examples of how patient health has been affected by shortages, including “risk of vitamin deficiencies” and the development of an “additional symptom” in a patient receiving palliative care.”

One pharmacist quoted in the article described the shortages as “quite dangerous”, however, the article at no point claims that lives are being put at risk.

The Journal’s findings have been reported by a number of media outlets, including Sky News and Bloomberg, however the Express’s headline appears to be the only one that conflates the Journal’s reference to patient health with patients’ lives. 

This means its front page is not an entirely accurate reflection of The Pharmaceutical’s Journal’s report, as Mr Praities has pointed out on Twitter. The Express had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

Mr Praities told Full Fact: “Our survey did not find that patient lives are being put at risk by the increasing number of medicines shortages. However, we did have numerous examples from pharmacists of patients being very distressed, missing doses of crucial medication or having to be switched to an alternative due to medication shortages in the past six months.

“In one case, a cancer patient was not able to receive treatment for their symptoms at the end of their life due to the shortage of a particular product. Healthcare professionals in the NHS are doing all they can to reduce any risk to patients from shortages of medicines, but the feedback we got from pharmacists in our survey was that they were finding it increasingly hard to cope with daily shortages of common medicines.”

Mr Praities further confirmed to us that while issues like missing doses of medication could be a risk to life, there was no evidence of that situation occurring from the survey responses and no one mentioned a situation that could be life threatening. 

Journal survey was self-selected

While the Express’s front page splash does overstate The Pharmaceutical Journal’s report, there are also issues with the survey on which this story is based.

Mr Praities confirmed that the survey was sent to all members of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS), of which there are around 38,000, with only the responses of UK-based practising pharmacists included in the results. In total,1,562 eligible pharmacists responded.

This means that the survey’s respondents were self-selected, and therefore may not be representative of the views of all UK pharmacists, as not all pharmacists are necessarily members of the RPS, and not all those who were sent the survey responded.

Therefore the results of the survey may be affected by self-selection bias, when the people who choose to answer a survey are not a typical selection of that group of people more widely, and thus might express different opinions from the group as a whole. 

We’ve often written about self-selection bias, including in a recent survey of GPs and another of teachers.

Image courtesy of Arpad Czapp

We took a stand for good information.

After we published this fact check the Express amended its online version of the article and will be printing a correction in the paper. 

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