Drug Shortages Compromise Care, Doctors Say

By Sarah Birnbaum

Feb. 13, 2012

prescription drugs

Hospitals are having to ration some medications, doctors say. (Food and Drug Administration)

BOSTON — Massachusetts lawmakers were warned on Monday at a State House hearing that chronic drug shortages in the Commonwealth are compromising the health and safety of patients.
Al Patterson, director of pharmacy at Children’s Hospital Boston, said that one-third of his time is spent dealing with drug shortages. And the shortages are endangering the lives of his patients.
Children’s-strength morphine, for instance, simply isn't available, he said. So nurses are using adult morphine and trying to dilute it at the bedside.
“There have been cases, fortunately not at Children’s here at Boston, because of the misdilution, there have been overdoses and underdoses in pediatrics directly attributable to the unavailability of these dosage forms,” Patterson said.
Dr. David Frank, an oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, testified that the shortages are forcing doctors and manufacturers to ration critical cancer drugs such as Doxil, a treatment for ovarian cancer.
“We have women with ovarian cancer sitting next to each other in the infusion area, both of whom would benefit from Doxil, one of whom is receiving the Doxil and the other who is not,” Frank said.
What's causing the shortages? Dr. Sandra Kweder of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said the drugs are very expensive and complicated to produce — and manufacturers worry that if they build up inventories, they’d lose money. In addition, there aren't enough sources for some drugs. So when there’s a manufacturing glitch at one manufacturer, there might not be another to pick up the slack.
“These are production operations that operate 24-7 on very busy product lines," she said. "There is no cushion. They can’t quickly move from making it in one plant to another plant. Because to do that they need special production controls, and time to manufacture a new product.”
The FDA said there are 250 drugs in short supply right now. Life-saving pediatric and cancer medications are among the hardest to find.

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