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Drug Shortages Cost Patients Their Health

Patients expect hospitals and doctors offices to be prepared to provide health care services, but a disturbing trend of drug shortages in the US is making it more difficult for doctors to provide those vital services. The New York Times reports that in recent years, drugs like anesthetics, painkillers, antibiotics, and cancer treatments have all faced short supplies.

The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists currently lists over 150 drugs on short supply.

The number of drug shortages in the US increased by 435% between 2008 and 2014. Over half of these shortages are of lifesaving drugs, and about 35% of those shortages were drugs that are used in emergency departments across the country. According to a study by the American Emergency Medicine Journal, drug shortages in emergency departments alone increased by 400% between 2001 and 2014.

The drugs that appeared in the greatest numbers on the shortage list were drugs used to treat infectious diseases, relieve pain, and treat poisoning.

Many times, patients are not aware that they experienced a drug shortage.

The decision to administer a rationed drug that is on shortage is left to hospital ethics committees, patient representatives, and sometimes to individual pharmacists and physicians. There is no overarching system in place to decide who gets drug rations. But that may change with the growing list of drug shortages. At the end of January, The Journal of the National Cancer Institute released guidelines for allocating scarce chemotherapy drugs.

These shortages have real, tragic effects on patients. Studies have found links between the use of alternative drug treatments during drug shortages and higher rates of medication errors, disease progression, and deaths.

One study found that when patients were alerted to drug shortages, they opted to postpone elective surgeries until the drug was available. But still many doctors and pharmacists do not disclose drug shortages to patients.

Why do delays happen? About 26% of delays are accredited to manufacturing delays, 15% to supply and demand, 5% to the availability of raw materials, and 2% to business decisions. But no reason was given for over 46% of the delays.

The responsibility of drug production lies with drug manufacturers, but sometimes the problem is with other circumstances like raw material shortages and increased demand. The US government does not control pharmaceutical companies. The Washington Post reports that the Food and Drug Administration cannot require pharmaceutical companies to: make drugs, increase drug production, or change distribution patterns. The FDA has released a strategic plan for lessening drug shortages.

Patients can protect themselves by learning about drug shortages and being able to make an informed decision. Patients can talk to their doctors about the guidelines the hospital or doctor’s office uses to allocate scarce drugs, and can discuss the effects of alternative treatments and the possibility of waiting for drugs to become available.

If you or a loved one has suffered a serious injury as a result of a drug shortage, contact a medical malpractice attorney.

About the Author

Briggs Bedigian
Briggs Bedigian

H. Briggs Bedigian (“Briggs”) is a founding partner of Gilman & Bedigian, LLC.  Prior to forming Gilman & Bedigian, LLC, Briggs was a partner at Wais, Vogelstein and Bedigian, LLC, where he was the head of the firm’s litigation practice.  Briggs’ legal practice is focused on representing clients involved in medical malpractice and catastrophic personal injury cases. 


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