WCH CONNECTNovember 4, 2020

New tool monitors prescription drug trends during the pandemic

  • November 4, 2020
Mina Tadrous
Dr. Mina Tadrous

As the risks of the COVID-19 pandemic evolve, so will the impact of drug shortages on patients, healthcare professionals and the health system. A new interactive tool launched Thursday by scientists at the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network (ODPRN) provides ongoing surveillance of prescription drug trends allowing policy makers, clinicians and the public to make more informed decisions about their COVID-19 planning as the pandemic progresses. 

The COVID-19 Ontario Prescription Drug Utilization Tool monitors prescription drug utilization trends across the province and reports the weekly trends of individuals who were dispensed a prescription drug or received a pharmacy service (such as flu shots) from 2016 onward. According to the tool, in mid-March, Ontarians stockpiled inhalers and there was a 19.2 per cent spike in the dispensing of Hydroxychloroquine, a malaria medication promoted as a possible treatment for COVID-19 that has since proven to be ineffective. 

“There’s a real concern that COVID-19 related drug shortages can negatively impact people’s health if they can’t get the medication they need,” said Dr. Tara Gomes, a scientist at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute of St. Michael’s Hospital and ICES, and a principal investigator of ODPRN. “Being able to monitor these trends and see how policies, as well as clinical practices are changing the way in which the drug supply is being used, can help us avoid drug shortages and adapt more quickly.” 

Key findings on how the pandemic has impacted drug supply and the way medications are dispensed can be seen in the data presented by the tool. One trend that is evident is the stockpiling of inhalers –there was clearly a concern among people with respiratory problems that they might not be able to access their inhalers. Although there was a shortage of some inhalers during the pandemic, a rapid policy response helped source new products to avoid a gap in access for Ontarians.  

“We saw first-hand how dynamic this is and there is evidence to suggest that all the news that comes out about potential treatments and how to deal with COVID-19, impacts the way people use medication,” said Dr. Mina Tadrous, scientist at Women’s College Hospital. “Unfortunately, for a lot of sectors, COVID-19 showed the cracks in the system. Misinformation, stockpiling and drug shortages were all problems we had before this. During this pandemic, it just became more obvious.”   

The tool also shows a 21 per cent increase in demand for flu shots over the previous year, around the start of the pandemic. This trend will be important to monitor over the coming winter months as demand for the flu shot has been high and broad access is needed to reduce the burden of influenza on hospitals. Additionally, more frequent dispensing of chronic medications, like those used to treat high blood pressure and diabetes, is seen in the data – a trend that was expected by the scientists. The trend was symptomatic of policies limiting the size of prescriptions implemented by the Ministry of Health to mitigate the risk on the drug supply during a pandemic, and has reversed since restrictions have eased. 

The information included in the tool was captured using the Ontario Drug Benefit database, which contains records of dispensed drugs and pharmacy services that are reimbursed through Ontario’s publicly-funded drug program. It also uses data from the Ontario Narcotics Monitoring System, which contains all prescriptions for controlled, and monitored substances dispensed from all community pharmacies in Ontario. As new data emerges, the tool will be updated and expanded to include any new drugs and provide an early indication of how trends are continuously changing to facilitate rapid policy and clinical responses. 

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