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Shortage of prescription drugs on rise

DEAR DOCTOR K: It seems like every day in the paper I read about doctors and hospitals running out of medicines because the pharmaceutical companies can’t manufacture enough of them. Why are we having these problems?

DEAR READER: You aren’t just imagining this; the problem really has gotten worse. There have been shortfalls of common drugs for ADHD, cancer, pain and heart disease.

Although drug shortages are not new, they seem to be on the upswing. According to the Associated Press, tracking information from the University of Utah Drug Information Service shows 267 newly reported drug shortages in the United States in 2011, up from just 58 in 2004. Clearly, this is not in the public interest.

The Food and Drug Administration has the authority to monitor the production of medicines. In fact, the closure of some drug manufacturing plants because of quality control problems is contributing to the unavailability of some drugs.

A larger problem, according to Avorn and others, is the desire of drug companies to maximize their profit. For example, there have been many drug company mergers. One important goal of some mergers is to shed “unnecessary expenses” – which has meant shuttering some manufacturing facilities.

The FDA can sometimes help ease a drug shortage. It can approve a manufacturer distributing a drug that it has in stock when the drug has expired or is close to expiring. The FDA also can help ramp up production of hard-to-get drugs by speeding approval of new production lines. It also can look for overseas sources for specific drugs, after checking their safety.

If your doctor recommends a drug that is in short supply, ask about other medications that might work for you. Also, your pharmacist may be able to track down a source. Be wary of Internet or faxed advertisements for alternatives (often highly priced and sometimes counterfeit products).

Finally, if you’ve had trouble getting one of your medicines, go to this website to report it: DrugSafety/DrugShortages.