The study compared prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine made before the COVID-19 pandemic (between 1 March 2018 and 29 February 2020) and during the pandemic (between 1 March 2020 and 31 May 2020).
In March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine doubled from 7 to 14 scripts per 10,000 patient-doctor consultations, compared to the pre-COVID period. Private scripts (not funded by the government), although only a tiny fraction of the total, saw a 20-fold increase in March 2020, compared to the pre-COVID period. Prescriptions returned to more normal levels after government restrictions on the medicine were introduced.
The study reported that 80% of people who were prescribed hydroxychloroquine between 1 March and 31 May 2020 were already using it before the pandemic. As fears of shortages were reported by some media outlets, these people may have stocked up with an extra supply to treat existing conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or SLE.
Of the 20% who were newly prescribed hydroxychloroquine during this time, around half didn’t have any illness recorded that requires treatment with hydroxychloroquine. Those prescribed hydroxychloroquine for the first time in this period were typically younger, lived in more socioeconomically advantaged areas, and were more often male and from a big city.
A small number of people prescribed hydroxychloroquine during the COVID-19 period also received a prescription for the antibiotic azithromycin on the same day. In this small group, only 25% of people had a recorded illness that requires hydroxychloroquine as part of treatment.
Between 15 February 2020 and 23 March 2020, around 1 in 7 hydroxychloroquine prescriptions prepared by a GP were new scripts for people who had never been prescribed this medicine before the COVID-19 pandemic and did not have an illness recorded that requires treatment with hydroxychloroquine. This shows there was some potentially inappropriate prescribing.
The number of potentially inappropriate prescriptions dropped to 1 in 14 after 24 March 2020, when the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) ruled that only specialists could start hydroxychloroquine treatment . It dropped further to 1 in 27 after 1 May 2020, when approval from the PBS was required to prescribe the medicine.