banner
Health Team

Drug shortage hits Triangle hospitals

Posted May 26, 2011 1:56 p.m. EDT
Updated May 26, 2011 6:39 p.m. EDT

— A serious shortage of common drugs, including ones involved in critical care, has many hospitals scrambling for solutions.

"We're experiencing several shortages of medications," WakeMed pharmacist Lynn Eschenbacher said.

Most patients aren't aware of the shortages because hospital pharmacies are working to find alternative drugs or searching for other sources for the drugs.

The shortage has mostly hit injectible or intravenous medications like epinephrine, which comes in pre-filled syringes to quickly fight cardiac arrest.

"If a patient on the floor's heart were to stop, they would have cardiac arrest. We would want to respond as quickly as possible to get the patient the medication they need," Eschenbacher said.

The drug is available in bulk form, but WakeMed paid a premium price for pre-filled syringes to avoid slow response to patient emergencies. The hospital hasn't passed the higher price onto patients.

A similar drug, neorephinephrine, is also critically low in supply, so it's given only to patients who absolutely need it. Propofol, the most commonly used anesthesia drug, is also in low supply.

"Some hospitals nationwide actually had to cancel surgeries, because they didn't have enough of this drug," Eschenbacher said.

Alternatives to Propofol are more expensive, so some hospitals, including WakeMed, have imported a foreign-made version called Propoven.

Also in short supply at hospitals are Fentanyl patches, which are used to numb pain; Gentamicin, an intravenous antibiotic; and Trace Elements, vitamins delivered intravenously to patients who can't eat.

A few retail drugs are also in short supply at pharmacies. That includes Tamiflu Suspension, which shortens the duration of the flu.

Eschenbacher explained that drugs' money-making ability is driving some manufacturers to drop making them and turn to others.

"Some companies are discontinuing products they always produced, and these drugs may not be as profitable for a company to make, because they're generic. They're not new, great branded drugs," she said. "If only two or three companies make the drug and then another company discontinues it, another company might not be able to make enough of the drug."

The "Preserving Access to Life-Saving Medications Act," which is being considered by a U.S. Senate committee, would require drug manufacturers to notify the U.S. Food and Drug Administration six months before they discontinue a drug. That advance notice would give other companies time to ramp up production to meet need for the drug.