The Eight Drug Shortages Putting Americans at Risk

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President Obama this week signed an executive order directing federal regulators to address shortages of vital prescription drugs. According to the president, the order, which does not need congressional approval, was necessary to reduce patient risk and prevent price gouging.

The executive order is aimed at 232 drugs that are in short supply — up from 70 in 2006, according to the University of Utah’s Drug Information Service, which maintains the most comprehensive list of drug shortages in the country. Much of the attention has been focused on drugs used in hospital treatment, which account for 80% of the shortages experienced. While such drugs, like injected medicines used for chemotherapy, are critical to patient care, many Americans are unfamiliar with them.

Using data provided by the Drug Information Service, 24/7 Wall St. examined the shortages of drugs most likely to impact the general public — those prescribed outside hospitals. The severity of the shortage, the total number of people who take these drugs annually, the availability and efficacy of alternatives, and the cost of potential replacements was then measured to identify the drugs that put the most American patients at risk.

The drug shortages for common prescription drugs that 24/7 Wall St. has identified can present problems for consumers. For example, cilostazol, a drug for a specific subset of heart disease patients, is on the list due to supply constraints and increased demand. While there are similar drugs available, cilostazol is the only one proven to improve survival and quality of life with the highest medical evidence.

The good news is the vast majority of drug shortages will not pose a problem for the average consumer for a number of reasons: There are excellent alternatives, the shortages are constrained to one dose type or one manufacturer, or the drug has fallen out of favor in the medical field. Methylprednisolone, an oral drug for rheumatoid arthritis, is in short supply, but two equivalent drugs, prednisone and prednisolone, are widely available. Likewise, lansoprazole, a heartburn drug, is in short supply in the form of orally disintegrating tablets, but is readily available in regular capsule form.

Data on drug shortages is from the University of Utah’s Drug Information Service, prescription estimates are from the most recently published 2007 National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey from the Center for Disease Control. Several other medical databases and journals were reviewed to provide details on each drug on the list.

These are the eight drug shortages putting Americans at risk.