Health sector review to examine concerns over Pharmac’s switch to generic epilepsy drug

Corazon Miller
Source: 1News

A review, led by the Ministry of Health, will be held across the health sector following concerns around Pharmac's switch to a generic epilepsy drug known as Logem. 

The drug agency has been criticised over its communication of the change, but in her findings released today, Chief Coroner Deborah Williams found there was no clear evidence linking the switch to the deaths of six people at the centre of a recent inquiry. 

In 2019, a funding decision saw around 11,000 people switch to the generic version of anti-epileptic lamotrigine. Later that year the coronial inquiry was launched into the deaths of six people who died after their medication was switched.

Today's findings containing no formal recommendation, the chief coroner did suggest the establishment of a national database and better monitoring of patients undergoing a drug switch could be considered. 

She also noted that Pharmac's communication strategy was lacking, and important messages such as possible adverse symptoms and how to get funding for exceptional circumstances did not reach patients. 

Pharmac operations director Lisa Williams accepted the criticism. 

"We accept that it's our responsibility to make sure that health professionals do know about brand changes and are able to give the right information." 

Families at the centre of the inquiry are now left feeling angry as they search for more answers. Jo Oliver's son, Will, was 26 when he died, just four months after his medication was changed. 

"I was hoping for a definite answer, to give closure, complete closure," she said. "[Will] had the brains, this is what I miss. He would, in life, be himself, but he would go the extra mile." 

In 2019, Nadia Jooste and Michelle Townes lost their husband and son respectively just a few weeks after their medication was switched. Both expressed their frustration at the lack of answers. 

"[When I read the finding] it was just a lot of anger, I think, and now it's gone more into trying to understand. Just for life after, what happens now," she said. "I never wanted to be the mum and the dad, and now I have to be. I didn't have a choice." 

Townes says she expected a "better outcome".

"All that time [spent in court], for what? We have come to the end now according to them. So where to now, what happens next? Is this just the end or do we just accept.”

The Health Ministry is now promising to lead a review into how brand switches are managed. 

"The ministry will lead a coordinated sector-wide response to the concerns raised about the brand switch of the epilepsy medicine Lamotrigine and the observations made by the coroner." 

It will include a review of communication strategies, establishing clear obligations across the health sector, improving communication technology and systems, expert advice on serum level testing for patients undergoing a switch, and looking at international approaches to the therapeutic equivalence of different brands of drugs.