Drug shortages fuelling attacks on pharmacists in France, says union

Attacks in 2022 rose by 17% compared to before the pandemic, figures show, with many attacks or aggressive incidents caused by a lack of stock

Attacks against pharmacists rose by 17% in 2022 compared to 2019, figures show
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Pharmacists in France were victims of violence at a rate of more than one attack per day in 2022, new figures show, as a result of drug shortages and a lack of access to care, a pharmacist union has said.

Attacks rose compared to 2019, with 366 incidents reported by health professionals in 2022, showed the most recent update from le Conseil national de l'Ordre des pharmaciens, first published in the newspaper JDD.

This is less than in the pandemic years (427 attacks in 2021, and 584 in 2020), but more than pre-pandemic.

“[Attacks] rose by 17% compared to 2019, before the health crisis,” said the council president, Carine Wolf-Thal.

Most attacks were verbal, but a small number were physical, and 5.4% involved a weapon of some kind, and in some cases, even a knife or a gun. Of all the reported attacks, 13 of them led to the victim being required to take time off work, of up to 15 sick leave days.

Ms Wolf-Thal added the figures vastly underestimate the real scale of the problem.

“Unfortunately, not all pharmacists report attacks due to a lack of time, and feeling discouraged,” she said.

The council estimates that in 2022, only 35% of pharmacist victims reported an attack, down from 44% in 2021.

Most attacks take place in communes with less than 30,000 residents, the figures show.

Main reason 1: Refusal of prescriptions

The pharmacist’s refusal to fill a prescription is the most common reason given for physical and verbal aggression, the study showed, in 94 out of the 366 cases.

Ms Wolf-Thal said: “When a pharmacist suspects a false prescription, they will systematically refuse to give out the product.”

This often applies to anti-pain medication, especially in people who have developed a drug dependency.

Main reason 2: Drop in availability

The year 2022 also saw a drop in stocks of common medicines, including amoxicillin, Doliprane, and cortisone.

These shortages caused “great anxiety” among patients, said Pierre-Olivier Variot, president of the Union des Syndicats de Pharmaciens d'Officine, one of the industry’s leading unions. He is also a pharmacist in Plombières-lès-Dijon (Côte-d'Or).

Mr Variot said 70% of pharmacy attacks are due to a “lack of medicine stock”.

He said: “I remember one mum who was panicking. She had a prescription for amoxicillin and Doliprane for her baby, and I didn’t have any more of them. It took us an hour to find a solution.”

More people in France are suspicious of “the system”, said Ms Wolf-Thal, “and pharmacists are sadly the first line [of defence] that people can rail against”.

Read more: Frances faces shortages of 3,000 types of medicine

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Pharmacists ‘under-resourced’ to deal with attacks

Mr Variot and Ms Wolf-Thal said pharmacists are often ‘under-resourced’ when it comes to managing attacks.

Ms Wolf-Thal said: “Protocols exist, with links to prefectures and law enforcement services who offer training.”

Pharmacies should also have, if they have not already, CCTV cameras as a deterrent, and an “anti-aggression alarm” that will allow staff to contact police quickly.

In some pharmacies, patients have to get permission from a local police station before they can enter and must present their ID and proof of address to do so.

However, this is being phased out as many police now say they do not want to “endorse” this responsibility, said Mr Variot.

Ms Wolf-Thal said that pharmacies should be helped to increase security, without making them into “bunkers”.

She called for harsher penalties to be introduced to “act as a greater deterrent”, and that pharmacists should be encouraged and helped to report assaults via visits from local police.

Report to launch ‘fight against violence’ before the summer

Minister for Health Professions, Agnès Firmin Le Bodo, has said that she is aiming to offer responses to these calls “very soon”.

She said that she had been running an investigation, including questioning pharmacists on the situation, since January. A report on the conclusions is to be published “in the next few days”.

The plan is expected to include ways to “fight against violence against healthcare professionals, including in the hospital sector but also in towns”, she said. The plan will be presented “before the summer” and will deploy “short-term and long-term measures to respond to the citation immediately, but also to fight the deep causes of this rise in violence.”

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