(FOX 25 / MyFoxBoston.com) - Dr. Lowell Schnipper has been an oncologist for more than four decades. Treating a complicated disease with many forms and lately, with an added challenge.
"I've never seen it like this. And I'm still not fully aware of why," Dr. Schnipper says.
Prescription drug shortages aren't new. Just think back to the early 2000s, when flu vaccines and anti-viral medications were scarce. But between 2005 and 2010, the number of prescription drug shortages in the U.S. tripled. And over the past year, nearly 270 drugs were in short supply, with cancer drugs hit especially hard.
"This drug was absolutely in zero supply anywhere for whatever reason we couldn't get the drug anywhere in the U.S.," Dr. Schnipper says.
It's a problem that left doctors scrambling, to Europe for a drug called Doxil, used to treat rare forms of cancer, and to other hospitals in Massachusetts.
"We essentially dispatched a taxi to go out there, get the drug from them, and at four in the morning, the taxi brought the drug back so we could give it to our patient the next day."
And it's not just cancer drugs.
"So this has been on shortage, Sodium Bicarb, which is a cardiac arrest medication," says Dr. Lori Harrington, the Associate Director of Boston EMS, where the ambulances are fully stocked with a variety of emergency medications. And while there's no evidence of the shortage here, there's always a concern.
"There are probably three or four medications we've probably seen that have been in short supply," Dr. Harrington says.
Among them, are injectable forms of seizure, pain and nausea medications. But why this is happening, isn't clear.
"I'm not really sure that anyone has a specific answer except that the drug supply is extremely complicated," Dr. Schnipper says.
Nearly every company with a drug on the FDA's list of shortages names manufacturing delays as the cause. According to the FDA, companies aren't required to notify them about these delays, or give an estimate of how soon the problem will be fixed.
But according to a report done with the Department of Health and Human Services,
the complexity of the manufacturing process, together with the costs, may be
driving the problem.
Manufacturing injectable drugs is expensive, and because drugs have a shelf life, companies don't create a large surplus. Finding the raw materials for the drugs can also be difficult, and getting a supply of drugs from Europe in the face of a shortage requires a lengthy regulatory process. While substitutions may be available, they often aren't realistic.
"The newest ones cost a fortune, an absolute fortune. Patients have a huge co-pay when receiving these drugs because they're so expensive, and for a hospital to buy them, it's a big expenditure," says Dr. Schnipper.
While the supply of some cancer drugs has returned, he believes the shortages will continue to get worse. While Dr. Schnipper's patients were never forced to go without drugs they needed, he has joined forces with several oncologists across the country to make sure something like that never happens.
"We have resolved to try to put together a not for profit foundation that hopefully will raise, through philanthropy, enough funds to produce drugs and manufacture them in a not for profit fashion, so we can assure an unending supply of them," Dr. Schnipper says.
Boston EMS says its drug supply is also steady, for now, with backup plans in place.
"We have alternative medication we have the ability to use, if it came to that," Dr. Harrington says.
Doctors are going the extra mile to protect the health of patients amidst a growing problem that has no end in sight.