Hospitals across the U.S. are suffering from drug shortages, with more than 80% delaying treatment and nearly 70% administering less-effective substitutes to patients, the Wall Street Journal reports. It's the latest dispatch to highlight the growing problem of scarce drugs based on a survey conducted by the American Hospital Association in an attempt to push lawmakers to act.
As the WSJ notes, most of the scarce drugs are off-patent, low-margin generics. Most are injectable meds. And most are made by only one or two companies. So, if one company runs into manufacturing problems--as happened with a Teva Pharmaceutical plant in California--rivals don't have the capacity to compensate.
Otherwise, the drugs run the gamut: anesthesia meds, emergency-care drugs, chemotherapy drugs, antibiotics and nutritional substitutes. More than 90% of hospitals surveyed said they'd experienced shortages of drugs used in surgery and anesthesia. Two-thirds said they'd run short of chemo meds, and at least one of the commonly scarce chemo drugs, cytarabine, has no direct substitute.
Given the need for FDA approvals and manufacturing controls, new companies can't just jump in to fill the gaps. And lawmakers' power to change things is rather limited, too. So far, the only proposed legislation would require companies to notify the FDA when they have a problem that could lead to a drug shortage. Now, companies only have to tell the FDA if they're the only supplier of a drug they plan to stop making, the WSJ points out. Early notification could help; the FDA says it was able to avert 38 shortages in 2010 because it found out early enough to work with competing manufacturers to fill the void.