Growing drug shortage problematic for patients, doctors

January 4, 2013 5:17:28 AM PST
From sick newborns to cancer patients, many Americans cannot get the drugs they need.

Doctors fighting to save lives are running out of the medications so many of us assume will be available.

Drug shortages have nearly quadrupled since 2005.

This on-going crisis could affect your care and there is no easy cure.

"I think the public has a right to be dismayed and outraged," the head of the FDA's Office of New Drugs Dr. Sandra Kweder said.

Kweder said quality control in manufacturing plants is causing nationwide recalls and massive drug shortages.

A lack of raw materials, closures and consolidations among drug-makers and low profit margins on certain drugs have also added to the problem.

It has led to the rationing of some cancer drugs and patients being put on waiting lists.

"We are in the midst of what we see as a crisis," Kweder said.

Almost every day, more drugs become scarce and end up in short supply.

At Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, head pharmacist William Pong said you never know what the day will bring.

"We find out when we go to order the drug and the next thing you know the drug is not available or it is in small allocations and that becomes a real issue for us," Pong said.

The problem has affected medications used in everything from giving sick babies the nutrition they need to surgical anesthesia to cancer treatments.

Even emergency departments are feeling the pinch, drugs used to treat cardiac arrest are becoming harder to get.

"These are drugs we routinely use in patients that have cardiac arrest. It's not to say they have gotten to the point where we don't have them available but it's at a level now that we are constantly monitoring them," the director of Emergency Medical Services at LUMC Dr. Mark Cichon said.

Loyola doctors said that so far none of their patients has gone without important drugs thanks to creative strategies to conserve medications and borrowing from other facilities.

When there is absolutely no medication available, such as the painkiller morphine, other narcotics can be substituted.

Drug substitution is not always a simple switch

"The difficulty becomes in training in education and approval because certain medications are not allowed in the pre-hospital arena or with the paramedics," Cichon said.

Getting crucial drugs back in supply will take time.

"It didn't get this way overnight, and we're not going to fix it overnight," Kweder said.

Reports attribute the drug shortage to 15 deaths in the U.S.

According to Kweder, it's hard to figure out just how many have been impacted by the shortages. She guesses the number to be in the hundreds of thousands if not millions.