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EDs Hit Hard by Shortages of Life-saving Drugs in Recent Years

October 5th, 2016

WASHINGTON, DC – Emergency physicians have been facing one of their biggest nightmares for years now: desperately seeking a drug to save a life only to find that it is unavailable because of a shortage.

A study published recently in Academic Emergency Medicine notes that drug shortages affecting emergency care have grown dramatically since 2008, and that most of the shortages are for drugs used for lifesaving interventions or high-acuity conditions. Furthermore, according to the George Washington University-led study, some of them have no viable substitutions.

For the study, researchers analyzed drug shortage data from the University of Utah Drug Information Service from January 2001 to March 2014. Two board-certified emergency physicians classified drug shortages based on whether:

  • They were within the scope of emergency medicine (EM) practice,
  • They were used for lifesaving interventions or high-acuity conditions, and
  • A substitute for the drug exists for its routine use in emergency care.

Researchers then calculated trends in the length of shortages for drugs used in EM practice.

Results indicate that, of the 1,798 drug shortages over the approximately 13-year period, 610 shortages (33.9%) were classified as within the scope of EM practice. Of those, 321 (52.6%) were for drugs used as lifesaving interventions or for high-acuity conditions. About 10% (32) were for drugs with no available substitute.

While the prevalence of ED drug shortages fell between 2002 and 2007, the rate sharply increased 435% from 23 to 123 between January 2008 and March 2014, according to the study. During that time period, shortages in drugs used as a direct lifesaving intervention or for high-acuity conditions increased 393% from 14 to 69, and shortages for drugs with no available substitute grew 125% from four to nine.

Study authors noted that nearly half (46.6%) of all ED drug shortages were caused by unknown reasons, i.e., the manufacturer did not cite a specific reason when contacted.

The most common EM drugs in short supply were those used to treat infectious disease. Overall, there were 148 drug shortages totaling 2,213 months during the study period.

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