Drug Shortages Hurt Hospitals, Undermine Care

April 5, 2011
Laura Enderle Associate Editor

Faced with unprecedented drug shortages, many providers are paying sky-high prices for substitute drugs

Faced with unprecedented shortages, many providers are paying sky-high prices for substitute drugs.

Rising prescription drug shortages are a threat to patient safety and a heavy financial burden for hospitals and other health facilities, according to a recent survey by Premier Inc. Analysts at the hospital purchasing alliance reported that drugs in short supply not only lead to poorer quality care for patients, but also cost providers more than $200 million annually.

The survey of pharmacy experts at hospitals, specialty centers, outpatient and retail pharmacies, and long-term care facilities revealed that 80% of providers experienced a shortage in 2010 that resulted in a delay or cancellation of a patient care intervention. It also showed that in 2010, more than 240 drugs were either in short supply or unavailable, and more than 400 generic equivalents were backordered for longer than 5 days.

Shortages are often preceded by little or no warning, forcing pharmacists, nurses, and physicians to scramble for generic alternatives or therapeutic substitutes in order to provide adequate care. In dire straits, providers turn to the the “gray market,” in which vendors resell shortage products at extremely inflated prices. Nearly half (42%) of all respondents reported purchasing from such vendors in 2010.

The problem may be even worse than the survey data indicate, Premier’s analysts said. “Providers are paying an average of 11% more for shortage products, although the total economic impact is likely much higher, since research excludes drugs purchased on the ‘gray market,’ or those with therapeutic alternatives,” according to their report on the survey, “Navigating Drug Shortages in American Healthcare.”

Although Premier is working internally to ease shortages among its member health systems, the problem is likely to continue unless some action is taken by the FDA. “We need new public policies that will further encourage access to medications and increase efforts to improve drug safety,” said Martin Caponi, RPh, pharmacy director at Sacred Heart Medical Center of Eugene, Oregon and chair of Premier’s National Pharmacy Committee.

One possible solution is a bill introduced February 7, 2011, by Senator Amy Klobuchar (D, MN), which would require prescription drug makers to notify the FDA of an incident that would likely result in a drug shortages. At the very least, the Preserving Access to Life-Saving Medications Act shows that drug shortages, which experts agree are approaching “near-crisis” levels, have finally caught the attention of lawmakers.

“Physicians, pharmacists, and patients are currently among the last to know when an essential drug will no longer be available—that’s not right,” Klobuchar said.

For other articles in this issue, see:

  • FDA Warns Against Repackaging Anticoagulant
  • New Online Home for Pharmacists Goes Live at PharmacyTimes.com
  • Quick Treatment Critical for Kids With Pneumonia