Northern Ireland

North’s unused drugs’ bill estimated at £18m

The cost of destroying returned medicines has increased significantly in recent years

Pharmacists have warned that hundreds of community pharmacies have closed in the last five years, which has heaped more pressure on overstretched GPs
The cost of safely destroying 'wasted' medicines rose to more than £600,000 last year. PICTURE: JULIEN BEHAL/PA (Julien Behal/PA)

An estimated £18m worth of unused drugs are returned to the north’s pharmacies every year, according to the Department of Health.

It has also emerged that the cost of safely destroying the “wasted” medicines rose to more than £600,000 last year.

The figures have been described as “shocking” and prompted calls for urgent action from the health minister.

Alliance councillor Danny Donnelly
Alliance MLA Danny Donnelly

In response to a written assembly question from Alliance MLA Danny Donnelly, Health Minister Robin Swann revealed that because medicines are returned from pharmacies in sealed containers, it is not possible to definitively assess their contents.

However, the minister said the estimated value of the drugs returned unused every year was in the region of £18m.

Mr Swann also revealed that destroying the unused prescription medicines, which cannot be prescribed again, has cost more than £1.5m over the past three years, with the annual destruction costs increasing by 46% over 24 months.

In the financial year 2021-22, it cost £426,790 to destroy the unused drugs, whereas last year it cost £625,436.

Prescribed drugs have been free in Northern Ireland since 2010.

Mr Donnelly, the deputy chair of Stormont’s health committee, said the cost of unused drugs was a “shocking sum of money to be wasting in terms of resources, especially at a time when the health service here is under such financial pressure”.

“The minister must address this urgently, the reasons it may be happening, and if there’s anything that can be done to prevent such wastage to this degree in the future,” he said.

The Department of Health said it was developing a new policy that aimed to reduce wastage.

“By reducing the amount of medicines being wasted each year, we can increase the available funding for other much needed health and care services and at the same time have a positive impact on our environment,” the department said.