Expert explains why drug shortages have plagued the U.S. for years

It’s a problem that pre-dates the pandemic

The U.S. has been suffering a prescription drug shortage for years. It’s a crisis that pre-dates the pandemic. Now experts are weighing in on what is going on.

In an interview with Becker’s Hospital Review on Wednesday, Northeastern University mechanical and industrial engineering professor Jacqueline Griffin pointed out issues in the health care industry’s supply chain.

“COVID-19 is causing big challenges, but the thing we really need to be clear about is that there’s systematic problems underlying the supply chain,” Dr. Griffin said. “We need to be careful to not just blame it on the most recent disruption, because really what we’re seeing is more and more disruptions and the problems keep on getting worse and worse. We need to step up and make a change and not just look for quick solutions or temporary solutions.”

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In 2011, the country experienced a rapid rise — ultimately creating significant friction within the health care industry. A study published in the journal of Pharmacy and Therapeutics from the same year discussed the causes and consequences of the crisis.

“Drug shortages are caused by many factors, including difficulties in acquiring raw materials, manufacturing problems, regulatory issues, and business decisions, as well as many other disturbances within the supply chain,” the study said.

“Drug shortages have a profound impact on patient safety, clinical outcomes, quality control, health care facility management, and other important factors,” the study later concluded. “Although it is impossible to predict or prepare for every drug shortage, careful planning can prevent the consequent problems from turning into a crisis.”

While the U.S. health care industry has made progress since then, the FDA said that drug shortages are still a major concern in a 2016 report.

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“While FDA and industry has made progress, patients are still experiencing drug shortages that impact their care,” the FDA said in a report. “A high percentage of drug shortages have been, and continue to be, sterile injectables, including chemotherapy, anesthesia and other acute drugs.”

Six years later, the pandemic has only exasperated the problem.

“Although the number of new drug shortages has declined since 2011 as a result of work by many groups, including FDA, shortages continue to pose a real challenge to public health,” the FDA said in a 2021 report. This is especially the case when the shortage involves a critical drug to treat cancer, to provide parenteral nutrition, or to address another serious medical condition, such as a shortage of blood pressure medications. Although there has been a leveling off in new shortages over the past few years, CY 2021 has been a challenging year for shortages.”

Dr. Griffin said one of this year’s major culprits in the drug shortage crisis is major miscalculation.

“When you get a list of drugs that are currently out of shortage, sometimes there will be a date that says, ‘This is when we expect it to come back into stock.’ Oftentimes, what we found looking through it, is the information is not very reliable,” Dr. Griffin told Becker’s.

Mistakes concerning product production and product expectancy are adding significant burdens on the health care industry. Another major problem in 2022 is secrecy.

“Typically, the information about the supply chains of where the raw materials originally come in from, how things flow, [and] sometimes what manufacturing capacity even exists is typically held as a competitive secret or a competitive advantage, and therefore it’s not really shared,” Dr. Griffin said. “We don’t have a real vision for what our resiliency or lack of resiliency looks like.”

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