Evidence-Based Reviews

When a disaster disrupts access to psychiatric medications

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Advance planning can help minimize the risks of withdrawal, other consequences.



In recent decades, disasters such as storms, earthquakes, and terrorism have occurred with increasing frequency. Disaster planners assess the needs and vulnerabilities of communities in order to save lives during these events. They focus on providing electricity and clean water and addressing other public health measures. What is not adequately planned for, in our opinion, is a disruption in the pharmaceutical supply chain, particularly supplies of psychiatric medications.

There is now a rich literature on disaster psychiatry.1-4 However, there’s been a lack of information about disrupted access to psychiatric medications. Disruptive behavior after Hurricanes Katrina, Maria, Rita, and others were a consequence of a lack of medications or difficulty obtaining medications following these disasters.5-7

This article discusses the pharmaceutical supply chain, the lack of stockpiles of psychiatric medications, and how clinicians can prepare themselves and their patients in the event a disaster strikes.

Supply chains

Each day, nearly 12 million prescriptions are filled in the United States, with gratifying swiftness, efficiency, and accuracy. Our confidence in the nation’s pharmaceutical dependability, however, rests squarely upon the strength and resilience of vast, interconnected supply chains that involve the myriad aspects of private industry—from manufacturing to shipping and transport to last-mile delivery from pharmacy to patient. The failure of any one of the links in any of these supply chains can result in the instant unavailability of critical medications.

Supply chains are fundamental to modern life and must fluctuate to address disruptions; however, common supplemental and gap-filling functions that address minor changes may be insufficient to mitigate supply chain disruptions during a disaster. While supply chains can be extremely complex and can vary significantly from product to product, all supply chains can generally be presented through the components found in Table 1.

Components of supply chains

All components within a supply chain, such as the transportation mechanisms between nodes, facilities, people, and communication networks, can affect a supply chain’s resilience. For a supply chain to be resilient, key players—in this case, psychiatrists and associated medical professionals—must be acutely aware of the supply chain elements within their vision and reasonable anticipation: known nodes and links, their potential vulnerabilities, and ways and means to mitigate expected disruption.

Recent natural disasters, especially Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, and Maria, have given both government emergency management (at all levels) and clinicians the opportunity to understand the full effects of broken pharmaceutical supply chains under varying and extreme circumstances.

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