Conference Coverage

Strategy critical to surviving drug shortages



Drug shortages are health care crises that burden health care providers, payers, and patients, but without sufficient studies quantifying their impact, the magnitude of their detriment flies largely under the radar.

“Statistically speaking, there is no proof that patients are worse off from drug shortages,” Matt Grissinger, RPh, director of error-reporting programs at the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, told the audience at the annual conference of the Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy. The data and anecdotes he presented suggest the contrary.

As Mr. Grissinger pointed out, drug shortages can create a sequela of events that stress health care workers seeking to find the next-best available and most appropriate therapy for their patients. In the process, numerous medication-related errors can occur, resulting in patient harm, including adverse drug events and even death.

One potential problems is erroneous or inappropriate drug substitution stemming from mis- or uncalculated doses because of factors such as incorrect labeling and lack of knowledge regarding acceptable therapeutic interchanges. Other potential errors include non–therapeutically equivalent drug substitutions, resulting in supraoptimal therapy or overdoses, and unfamiliarity with drug labeling from outsourced facilities.

As a result, patients may experience worse outcomes as a consequence of the drug shortage: Worsening of the disease, disease prolongation, side effects stemming from alternative drug selections, untreated pain, psychological effects, severe electrolyte imbalances, severe acid/base imbalances, and death.

While a paper trail can help piece together clues regarding how a medication error occurred, documentation or lack thereof can also introduce errors when drug shortages occur.

Any changes to a drug order or prescription that deviate from the prescriber’s original request require prescriber approval but can still create opportunities for error. While documenting these changes and updating labeling is essential, appropriate documentation does not always occur and raises the question of who is responsible for making such changes.

Drug shortages also challenge a clinician’s professional judgment. Mr. Grissinger cited an example in which a nurse used half of a 0.5-mg single-use vial of promethazine for a patient requiring a 0.25 mg dose. The nurse wrote on the label that the remainder should be saved. While the vial was manufactured for one-time use, whether to discard the unused contents in a situation of drug shortages required the nurse to make a judgment call. In this case, the nurse chose to save the balance of the drug – a choice Mr. Grissinger stated he might have made had he been in a similar situation.

Additionally, drug shortages can create a climate in which more ethical questions arise – especially with regard to disease states such as cancer.

“If you only have 10 vials of vincristine, who gets it?” Mr. Grissinger asked the audience.

To help answer these difficult life-or-death questions, hospital settings need to engage the ethics committees and social workers.

While education plays a vital role in bringing attention to and addressing errors stemming from drug shortages, Mr. Grissinger cautioned the audience not to rely on education as the solution.

“Education is a poor strategy for addressing drug shortages,” he said. While education can draw awareness to drug shortages and subsequent medication-related errors, Mr. Grissinger recommends that organizations implement strategies to help ameliorate the havoc created by drug shortages.

Drug shortage assessment checklists can help organizations evaluate the impact of shortages by verifying inventory, and proactively searching for alternatives. From there, they can enact strategies such as assigning priority to patients who have the greatest need, altering packaging and concentrations, and finding suitable therapeutic substitutions.

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