NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Hospitals Scramble on the Front Lines of Drug Shortages

April 17, 2012

Hospitals increasingly find themselves facing daily shortages of crucial drugs.  While shortages are not a new story, the frequency of shortages that hospitals are forced to overcome has grown rapidly, which contributes to mistakes and subpar medical care, says the Washington Post.

  • Shortages of prescription drugs nearly tripled from 2005 to 2010 and reached record levels in 2011 as manufacturers ceased operations or ran into production problems.
  • Shortages have also caused injuries from mistakes and at least 15 deaths around the country since mid-2011, according to the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, a nonprofit that tracks medication errors.
  • Currently, more than 210 drugs are in short supply or totally unavailable, according to Bona Benjamin of the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.

Difficulty dealing with shortages places a substantial burden on hospitals and pharmacies alike as they seek to create substitute medications or alternative treatments.

  • Pharmacists spend an average of eight to nine hours a week addressing drug shortages, compared with three hours a week in 2004, according to an industry estimate.
  • Last year, nearly half of hospitals reported experiencing a drug shortage on a daily basis, according to a survey of 820 hospitals by the American Hospital Association.
  • Furthermore, about 82 percent of hospitals said they delayed treatment because of a shortage, and 35 percent of hospitals said patients experienced "adverse outcomes."
  • The shortages often mean over­time for technicians and longer hours and more juggling for pharmacists.

The reasons for the shortages are diverse and difficult to address, even for the powerful Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that coordinates efforts nationwide to address the problem.

  • Many of the drugs in short supply are medications that are more complicated to produce and more prone to manufacturing problems.
  • Additionally, many are produced by only a small number of companies -- more than 50 percent of the drugs on the FDA's shortage list are supplied by three or fewer manufacturers
  • Quality control problems are also significant and were the leading cause of drug shortages, according to an FDA report in October.

Source: Lena H. Sun, "Hospitals Scramble on the Front Lines of Drug Shortages," Washington Post, April 10, 2012.

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