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50+: Live Better, Longer

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Survey: Hospital Drug Shortages Hurt Patient Care

Hospital Pharmacists Must Divert Time From Patients in Order to Manage Drug Shortage Problems
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

July 14, 2011-- Hospital drug shortages cost hospitals millions each year and may adversely affect patient care, according to a new survey.

''Drug shortages are essentially touching health care systems across the board," says researcher Burgunda V. Sweet, PharmD, director of the drug information and medication use policy at the University of Michigan Health System, Ann Arbor.

She surveyed hospital pharmacy directors nationwide, asking how the growing problem of drug shortages has affected them and the patients.

The report is published online in the American Journal of Health-System Pharmacists.

The pharmacists' survey was released at the same time as a survey by the American Hospital Association, which found similar problems. The American Hospital Association survey found that 99.5% of the 820 hospitals responding had had one or more drug shortages in the last six months. As a result, 82% of hospitals said they delayed patient treatment.

Survey of Pharmacists

Sweet and colleagues sent an online survey to 1,322 members of the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, which publishes the journal.

All were directors of pharmacy. The directors were asked to identify which of the 30 most recent drug shortages had affected their health system.

They were asked to tell what they did to manage the shortage. They also estimated staff time needed to solve the problem and calculated labor costs due to the shortages.

In all, 353 responded. Among the findings:

  • Labor costs to manage the shortages were estimated at $216 million a year.
  • Pharmacists spent a median of nine hours a week (half spent more, half less) to manage the shortages.
  • The pharmacy technicians spent a median of eight hours a week dealing with the shortages.

"Compared to six or seven years ago, the time they spend has tripled," says Cynthia Reilly, RPh, director of practice development division at the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists. She is a co-author on the study.

"Pharmacists and other health care providers who should be providing care to patients are being diverted," she tells WebMD.

More than 80% of the respondents had a shortage with three different drugs, including:

  • Succinylcholine injection, a muscle relaxant used during surgery.
  • Dextrose 50% syringe, used to restore blood glucose levels.
  • Epinephrine injection, used in cardiac emergencies.

In 2010, the number of drug shortages totaled 211, the researchers say, citing data from the University of Utah. It is the highest number recorded in a single year. In 2007, there were 120 drug shortages. The FDA tally for 2010 is slightly lower, at 178.

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