Since early 2020, consumers have faced countless shortages and supply chain disruptions throughout the economy, from personal protective equipment to infant formula to cars. Prescription medications are not exempt. In recent months, hospitals and other health care facilities have struggled to obtain sufficient stock of even basic supplies, such as saline, and national media outlets have drawn attention to shortages affecting widely prescribed drugs like amoxicillin and mixed amphetamine salts (Adderall®). 

Drug shortages impose significant risks to patient safety. Not only does the likelihood of medication errors rise, but people desperate to obtain a medication sometimes turn to questionable sources. Pharmacists are at the forefront of efforts to help both health care facilities and individual patients find alternative sources without compromising safety. 

Shortages: Not a New Problem 

Patients may find the current drug shortages surprising, but to health care workers, the situation is unfortunately familiar. In early 2022, new shortages, as listed by Food and Drug Administration (FDA), had declined to their lowest levels in 14 years. Nonetheless, overall shortages were still high – at roughly the same level as in 2017 after Hurricane Maria damaged pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities in Puerto Rico. 

Causes of drug shortages are myriad. The supply chain is long and complex and involves numerous players, including raw materials producers, manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors, transporters, vendors, health care facilities, and regulators, among others.  

Issues anywhere along the line may have ramifications, from a raw material producer whose workforce has been affected by illness to shipping delays for key ingredients. Demand also plays a role. During COVID-19, the difficulty of drug shortages has been exacerbated by challenges in obtaining related supplies – not just sodium chloride solution, for example, but also bags, tubing, and needles. Pandemic-related materials and workforce disruptions further highlight the vulnerabilities of the pharmaceutical supply chain. 

Helping Patients Stay Safe 

Pharmacists’ role as frontline providers is crucial to addressing drug shortages and keeping patients safe since medication shortages, along with many other goods, will not disappear in the immediate future. Pharmacists can continue leveraging their education and training to help mitigate their impact. They can inform patients about potential alternatives to a drug in shortage and about the dangers of purchasing medications from unverified online sources. NABP’s Safe Site Search Tool can help patients identify whether a particular website is trustworthy.  

As medication experts, pharmacists can also educate fellow health care professionals on new procedures to ensure patient safety with an unfamiliar drug regimen. And they can encourage pharmacy owners and other facilities to avoid risky “gray market” sources: secondary resellers outside direct drug distribution channels. 

This blog was adapted from an article that originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of Innovations.