This column will appear in the upcoming April print issue of Surgical Products.

First the good news: The number of new drug shortages impacting U.S. hospitals began to drop in 2012.

Now the bad news: Hospital group Premier Inc. conducted a survey that found hospitals are still losing quite a bit of money thanks to ongoing shortages of much-needed medications. The group estimates the dearth of drugs cost the nation’s 5,000 hospitals at least $230 million per year – on average – from 2011 through 2013. However, the group was quick to emphasize the total cost is likely much higher.

According to a recent Associated Press article, the estimate of $230 million is a conservative one because it doesn’t include additional costs related to staff hours being used to search for various medications or money spent on drugs from “manufacturers or wholesalers with whom the hospitals don’t have contracts giving discounts.” Because contracts with private insurers, Medicare, and Medicaid prevent hospitals from circumventing the higher costs, this problem simply will not go away.

To make matters worse, it is a problem on the rise. According to the AP article, shortages of drugs began to escalate in 2005. These include sedatives for surgery, various painkillers, and anesthesia. While the number of new shortages began to decline in 2012, many existing shortages continue to plague healthcare facilities around the country.

So just how much are hospitals affected by drug shortages these days? The Premier survey – which polled hospital facilities this past December and January – reported one very troubling fact: 90 percent of the 124 hospital pharmacies surveyed faced at least one drug shortage in the six months prior that may have led to an error in patient care.

Unfortunately, there are no tried, true, or obvious solutions to the problem of medication shortages for hospitals. Yes, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made a concerted effort to work with drug companies to address shortages. Furthermore, select foreign drug companies have been given the green light to supply hospitals with medication. Facilities also have been encouraged to seek out additional drug suppliers to avoid unwanted lapses in patient care.

But all of this isn’t enough. Quality of care is being compromised. The onus is squarely on the FDA and drug companies to take great pains to prevent some of the significant issues – including recalls and manufacturing shutdowns – that lead to ongoing shortages of medication for the healthcare industry. A lasting and satisfying solution to this problem begins there.

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