Pain Medication Shortages

Empty medicine bottle

Drug shortage is a growing concern for the medical profession. Over the past year-and-a-half, hospitals have been experiencing more and more shortages of medications that are vital for patient care. Intravenous medications in hospital settings are more likely to be affected by the drug shortage than oral medications you would pick up at the pharmacy. Some important medications that are affected by the drug shortage are chemotherapy drugs, antibiotics, anaesthetics, and pain medications.

This problem with medication shortage can become a life-or-death situation. For example, certain anti-cancer drugs are in short supply despite the fact that they are the only available effective treatment for a particular type of cancer. A treatable condition with decent chance of a cure can be a lost opportunity if the necessary medications are not in supply. The shortage of drugs can also cause delay of treatment, which can make prognosis much worse for patients with cancer and many other serious health problems.

When pain medications are in short supply, sometimes alternative drugs that are more dangerous and have more severe side-effects are used. In July 2010, at least two deaths occurred from misuse of a drug used to substitute morphine. Dosing errors can also occur if a substitute medication must be used quickly, leading to overdoses. Alternative medications may not be as well-studied as the usual medication, and can also be more expensive.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have the authority to solve the problem by itself. The FDA has no power to force drug companies to produce certain medications, regardless of the fact that the demand dangerously exceeds the supply. However, the FDA can try to work with the drug companies to resolve manufacturing problems.

One ongoing problem is that drug manufacturing companies are not required to notify the FDA of a decision to stop manufacturing a drug, leaving no time for health professionals to find a viable substitute and leaving patients at risk and suffering.

Drug shortage, including shortage of pain medications in hospitals, is an ongoing problem. Some suggestions for improving the situation include developing a public policy that would require drug manufacturing companies to notify the FDA when they stop manufacturing a medication, and to use an incentive program to convince drug companies to keep manufacturing drugs vital for patient care. It is not clear at this point how this critical problem will be solved, but it is a cause for concern.

Click on the following FDA links for additional information and to see a list of the drugs in question. You can also search Frequently Asked Questions about drug shortages.

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