Impact of Drug Shortages on Patient Safety and Pharmacy Operation Costs

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Indirect costs from drug shortage further complicated quantifying the impact of shortages. Many facilities acknowledged the indirect influence drug shortages have on staffing and workload due to the implementation of mitigation strategies. Most participants found it necessary to establish restrictions for use in addition to altering protocols. These required the time investment of essential personnel from development through execution and education. Situations also can arise for mass therapeutic substitution. In this example, pharmacy staff may be required to oversee medication transition from the product on shortage to an appropriate alternative. When substitution involves hundreds or thousands of outpatient prescriptions, such as the tamsulosin shortage, the process may be tedious and time consuming, depending on the level of clinical decision making needed to determine patient candidacy for transitioning products.

Improving institutional cost efficiency becomes a significant challenge with persistent drug shortages. Professional advocacy groups, such as the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP), help provide guidance to organizations constrained by specific drug shortages.12 Staff knowledgeable in allocation, supply considerations, and product repackaging and stability data also are essential. Other mitigation strategies include automatic substitutions, restrictions for use or inventory control strategies, and open market procurement, or borrowing from other institutions.

Data gathered from the survey of CMOP facilities also helped elucidate strategies used to mitigate drug shortage impacts for those respondents impacted by shortage. Likely, the 2 CMOP facilities without dedicated staff focused on shortages are those whose outpatient prescription fulfillment responsibility were focused on supply items or controlled substances. The impacted CMOP respondents cited overtime pay, shifting product responsibility, and prolonging patient wait times as the most frequently employed mitigation strategies. When these and other strategies fail to manage a shortage, prescriptions are often sent back to the local facility to be filled. Unfortunately for these facilities, the same mitigation strategies used by CMOP are not always feasible. Overtime pay may not be possible given staffing and budgetary resources, sending prescriptions back to facilities in itself prolongs patient wait times, and local medical centers do not have the option of shifting product responsibility between sites or sending the prescription to another facility. Herein lies 1 rationale for the CMOP effort to reduce the volume of prescriptions sent back to local medical centers.

Multiple offices within the FDA have roles in the mitigation of national drug shortages within their regulatory purview. Much of the recent focus stems from provisions enacted under Title X of the FDA Safety and Innovation Act of 2012, which addresses problems in the drug-supply chain.12 Rectifying a shortage involves short- and long-term strategic planning to address supply, distribution, and market reaction to need. Collaboration between the FDA and manufacturers is one method by which demand can be satisfied through the coordination of resources, expedition of inspections, and root cause analysis of the shortage.

Similar collaborations within the VA were viewed favorably by respondents and might yield productive relationships if regional or VISN working groups were to be established. Alternative long-term strategies are executed through regulation, particularly concerning the importation of foreign manufactured drugs and regulatory discretion on supplier vetting. Despite a strong respondent consensus that regulatory modifications of foreign product importation in the setting of a drug shortage may be beneficial, such a change would require a congressional action and is not likely to be timely. Unfortunately, gray market pharmaceutical distribution, driven by wholesaler stockpiling to raise prices, is separate from manufacturer driven shortages and falls outside the FDA’s regulatory purview and institutional mitigation strategies.

Although based on this limited survey, general agreement existed on the importance of greater national collaboration and communication regarding drug shortage management strategies. This could include PBM guidance on specific shortage management opportunities or establishing collaborations by region or VISN. These possibilities may be more realistically attainable in comparison to modifying federal regulations on drug product procurement during active shortages, which requires an act of Congress. Many of the survey participants endorsed a drug shortage task force within their facility. Coordinating interaction between preexisting or newly established task forces or working groups on a monthly or quarterly basis may provide fruitful interactions and the exchange of strategies to reduce shortage impact on institutional cost, efficiency, and patient care.


Quantifying the extent of drug shortage impact on patient safety and institutional costs is a difficult task. The procurement records data used for the analysis of a single VAMC were gathered through manual review of stored paper invoices, opening the possibility for missing data. It is also difficult to extrapolate the sum of indirect costs such as process changes, alternative product utilization, and pharmacy staffing resources as additional financial burdens to the affected institution. Any quantifiable cost assessment also is biased by contract terms between the VA and wholesalers in which unavailable products that must be purchased off-contract are subsequently reimbursed through credit or alternative means.

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