Have you ever gone to your pharmacy to fill a prescription and been offered an alternative option due to a lack of availability? This is an increasing problem for Americans as the country faces a prescription drug shortage. A medicine shortage of this nature occurs when a drug manufacturer or distributor can’t produce enough of the drug to meet the demand in prescriptions. The result is a supply chain issue that causes doctors and pharmacists to pivot to provide care to their patients. Sometimes it may be an issue of importation, while at other times products are discontinued due to lack of availability in the long term.
Prescription drug shortages happen more frequently than you might think. In March 2023, CNN reported that there had been a 30% increase in new drug shortages in the United States the previous year.
What Are the Causes of Prescription Drug Shortages?
Various factors contribute to prescription drug shortages in the United States. These include:
- Manufacturing delays
- Regulatory issues
- Supply chain disruptions
- Lack of raw material availability
- Increase in illnesses and infections globally
- Labor shortage
One or two of these factors can lead to a drug shortage, but when multiple ones occur simultaneously, the supply chain is affected for a prolonged period. This increases the duration of the medicine shortage for consumers.
The Impacts of Prescription Medicine Shortages
Prescription drug shortages impact the health care system as a whole, with effects from supply chain issues trickling down to health care providers, patients and hospital capacity. A 2019 scoping review found that prescription drug shortages primarily resulted in clinical, economic and humanistic patient outcomes. Such effects included:
- An increase in out-of-pocket medication and care expenses
- Higher rates of drug errors
- Increased frequency of adverse reactions
- High mortality rates
- More patient complaints
Unfortunately, prescription drug shortages also often negatively impact health care professionals and their patients. During prescription medicine shortages, health care providers are more exposed to verbal abuse from patients frustrated by the lack of access to care.
How to Handle Prescription Drug Shortages
If you realize you’re being affected by a prescription drug shortage, you can take a few simple steps to keep yourself healthy despite the lack of availability of your usual treatment. Follow these tips to avoid being left without a prescription at the last minute.
1. Talk to Your Doctor or Pharmacist
If a medication you’re currently taking is part of a prescription drug shortage, the first course of action is to speak to your prescribing doctor or pharmacist. They may be able to obtain the medication from another location (if the shortage is just pharmacy-wide or state-wide). If there’s a nationwide shortage of a prescription you require, your doctor can discuss other medications that may be right for you instead.
2. Check the FDA Drug Shortage List Regularly
If you take a prescription medication regularly (such as medication for managing ADHD) or are anticipating requiring a prescription in the near future (such as part of a cancer-treatment plan), it’s a good idea to check the FDA drug shortage list to see if the medication is listed. If it is, mention this to your doctor as soon as possible to discuss a plan of action.
3. Be Proactive
To avoid being left in a lurch without the prescription medication you need to treat or manage a condition, always contact a pharmacy to fill or refill a prescription a short time before you actually require the medication. Waiting until the day before you run out to place a refill order could affect your health if the pharmacy can’t obtain that medication on short notice or if you need to make a doctor’s appointment to discuss alternatives.
Possible Solutions to Prescription Drug Shortages
Drug shortages are a serious concern in the United States at present. Still, there are possible solutions that health care providers and patients can consider to keep everyone healthy and safe when a prescription is temporarily unavailable.
A short-term solution to a medication shortage might be extremely simple. If the shortage is at the distributor level, such as a local pharmacy, your pharmacist may be able to contact another location to see if they can order it for you to pick up within a couple of days. In other cases, if you’re picking up a prescription for a common ailment like an ear infection, the pharmacist may be able to offer you alternatives they already have in stock. If this isn’t possible (likely because of a shortage at the manufacturer level), contacting your doctor to ask for an alternative prescription is the next best solution.
Long-term solutions to prescription shortages take the pressure off the patient, consumer and health care providers, instead requiring people at a higher level to make decisions that will benefit everyone in the long run. For example, new manufacturing technologies to increase supply and meet demand is one potential long-term solution to a medication shortage.
On national and international organization levels (like the World Health Organization and the FDA), long-term solutions could include developing a national stockpile of essential prescription drugs. A 3–6 month supply maintained by the private sector could be a resource for medications that are currently out of production to provide them to Americans when they have no alternative.
Increasing supply chain transparency is another way to manage drug shortages in the long term. Consumers need to be able to access information about the quality of medications available at their local pharmacy and whether they can expect certain drugs to be available on time or at all.
Can’t Access Your Prescription? Don’t Wait
If you have a prescription you regularly take, such as an antidepressant or anxiety medication, it’s critical to stay on top of your refills. Don’t wait until the last minute to call your pharmacy or doctor to refill or place a prescription. Leave ample time to troubleshoot issues that may occur. If you become aware of a drug shortage that can’t be solved at the pharmacy level, call your doctor immediately to discuss alternatives.
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