Impact of Drug Shortages on Patient Safety and Pharmacy Operation Costs

The VA may benefit from facility-level drug shortage task forces, which can mitigate increased workload and institutional operation costs and promote patient safety.

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Drug product shortages threaten health care quality and public health by creating barriers to optimal care. The frequency of drug shortages has risen dramatically since 2005 and now influences broad areas of health care practice. More than 400 generic drug products have been affected, forcing institutions to purchase costly brand-name products, substitute alternative therapies, or procure from gray market vendors at increased institutional costs.1 Scarcity and cost have potential to negatively impact patient outcomes and the ability of health care organizations to respond to the needs of their patients.


Although constantly fluctuating, the number of active shortages reached a height of 320 products at the end the third quarter of 2014.2 A 2011 analysis from Premier Healthcare Alliance estimated the added cost of purchasing brand, generic, or alternative drugs due to shortage may have inflated hospital costs by $200 million annually.1 In 2016, the number of active shortages dropped to 176, suggesting a downward trend. However, the drug supply chain remains a concern for pharmacies in the U.S.

Despite creative approaches to shortage management, the variable characteristics of shortages make planning difficult. For example, the drug product in short supply may or may not have an alternative for use in similar clinical scenarios. The impact of shortages of medications lacking an equivalent alternative product has been documented, such as the past shortage of succinylcholine for anesthesia, resulting in surgery cancellations when an alternative paralytic agent was not appropriate.3 In 2016, the Cleveland Clinic reported undertaking “military-style triage” in determining patients who required use of aminocaproic acid during open heart surgery due to its limited supply.4 Decisions to reserve drug supply for emergency use and prefilling syringes under pharmacy supervision to extend stability and shelf life are short-term solutions to larger, systemic issues. Unfortunately, these scenarios have the potential to disrupt patient care and diminish health outcomes.

Shortages of products that have an available therapeutic substitution may seem easily manageable, but additional considerations may be present. Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) is considered the drug of choice for bladder cancer. In 2011, there was a shortage of the BCG vaccine after mold was discovered in the formulation.5 Providers were forced to choose between reducing or reallocating the dose of BCG, turning away patient, or substituting mitomycin C, which is less effective and costlier. When tamsulosin capsules became difficult to obtain in 2014, some institutions began switching patients to alfuzosin.6 Although alfuzosin is similar in mechanism to tamsulosin, it may prolong the QTc interval. Not only did this substitution present a contraindication for patients with elevated QTc intervals or who were already receiving concomitant medications that prolonged the QTc interval, but also it required additional cost and resources needed to update electrocardiograms.


VA Consolidated Mail Outpatient Pharmacies

The VHA serves nearly 9 million patients at more than 1,200 facilities across the U.S.7 This large patient population results in an estimated 149 million outpatient prescriptions annually.8 About 80% of these are distributed by mail through 7 VA consolidated mail outpatient pharmacies (CMOPs). When drug scarcity impedes the ability of the CMOP to respond to medication demand, the local facility must fill these prescriptions. These rejections sent back to the facility impact workload, patient wait times, and access to medication therapy. Barriers to medication procurement in the VA also stem from regulations based on legislation, including the Trade Agreements Act, Drug Supply Chain Security Act, and the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) (Table).

The impact of drug shortages has been described previously in the private sector, particularly for emergency medicine and chemotherapy.9,10 However, the impact of drug shortages on health care provision to veteran populations within the VA has not previously been analyzed. Due to the unique procurement regulations that influence the VA and the importance of continuing to provide optimal health care services to veterans, assessing the impact of drug shortages on patient safety and health care costs is necessary in informing policy decisions and guiding recommendations for mitigation strategies. The purpose of this study was to assess the influence of drug shortages on institutional costs and patient care within VA facilities and formulate recommendations for enhanced mitigation of this issue.


The primary outcome of this study was to characterize the impact of drug shortages on institutional cost and patient safety events among VHA facilities. Secondary outcomes included subgroup evaluation in reported drug shortage impact among 1a, 1b, and 1c complexity VA facility survey respondents and assessment of drug shortage impact on CMOP prescription order fulfillment and operation cost.


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