Record-Breaking Drug Shortages Threaten Patient Care in 2024

The United States is grappling with an unprecedented crisis as drug shortages reach an all-time high in 2024. According to data from the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) and the University of Utah Drug Information Service, a staggering 323 drugs were in shortage during the first quarter of the year, surpassing the previous record of 320 set in 2014¹.

This alarming trend is putting patients at risk and straining an already overburdened healthcare system.

Wide-Ranging Impact on Essential Medications

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The shortages are affecting a broad spectrum of drugs, from generic sterile injectable medications used in cancer chemotherapy and emergency crash carts to treatments for chronic conditions like diabetes and ADHD.

Even medications for vulnerable populations, such as RSV treatments for infants, are in short supply. The scarcity of these essential drugs is forcing healthcare providers to make difficult decisions about how to allocate limited supplies, leading to treatment delays, clinical complications, and adverse events from using less optimal alternatives.

Chemotherapy drugs have re-entered the list of the top five drug classes affected by shortages, potentially leading to devastating consequences for cancer patients. Some hospitals and clinics have reported running out of these essential medications, forcing doctors to ration or triage their distribution.

The American Cancer Society issued a warning about the situation last year, emphasizing the critical nature of these shortages ².

Another notable drug in short supply is Adderall, a prescription medication used to treat Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The shortage, which began in late 2022 due to a manufacturing delay, has since become demand-driven, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Complex Factors Contributing to Shortages

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Experts point to a multitude of factors contributing to the drug shortage crisis, including manufacturing quality issues, supply chain disruptions, spikes in demand, production delays, and economic pressures.

The majority of the drugs in short supply are older generic injectable medications with slim profit margins, making them less attractive for manufacturers to produce. Addressing these complex issues will require a coordinated effort from policymakers, regulators, manufacturers, and healthcare providers to implement comprehensive solutions and safeguard the U.S. drug supply.

The pandemic has further exacerbated the drug shortage issue, as highlighted in a report by the Senate Homeland Security Committee in March 2023. The lack of necessary medication means patients often face delayed treatments, substitutions, or no treatment at all, leading to potential health complications and adverse outcomes.

Urgent Need for Action to Protect Patients

As the drug shortage crisis continues to worsen, the impact on patients and the healthcare system is becoming increasingly severe.

A 2021 study in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology found that drug shortages were associated with a 1.2% increase in patient mortality and a 2.4% increase in length of hospital stay ³. The Institute for Safe Medication Practices (ISMP) reported that in a 2023 survey, 71% of healthcare practitioners stated that drug shortages had contributed to medication errors or patient adverse events in their facility.

Patients are facing higher out-of-pocket costs when more expensive substitutes must be used, while health systems are spending hundreds of millions of dollars annually just to manage shortages.

A survey conducted by the American Hospital Association in 2023 found that 99% of hospitals reported experiencing at least one drug shortage in the previous six months , with 69% reporting 21 or more shortages.

Another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2023 estimated that drug shortages cost U.S. hospitals over $359 million annually in labor costs alone, as staff spend significant time managing shortages and identifying alternative therapies.

ASHP is collaborating with the federal government to advise the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) agencies on their response to shortages and to propose legislative solutions to alleviate the issue. Proposed solutions include increasing transparency around manufacturing quality, providing incentives for manufacturers to produce less profitable but essential generic drugs, and enabling the FDA to require more information from manufacturers about shortages.

The record high number of drug shortages in 2024 underscores the urgent need for action to ensure that patients can reliably access the medications they need. Policymakers, regulators, manufacturers, and healthcare providers must work together to find lasting solutions to this critical issue and protect the health and well-being of patients across the country.

As ASHP CEO Paul Abramowitz stated, “Much work remains to be done at the federal level to address the root causes of drug shortages. ASHP will continue to engage with policymakers and advocate for effective solutions on behalf of our members.”

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Martha A. Lavallie
Martha A. Lavallie
Author & Editor | + posts

Martha is a journalist with close to a decade of experience in uncovering and reporting on the most compelling stories of our time. Passionate about staying ahead of the curve, she specializes in shedding light on trending topics and captivating global narratives. Her insightful articles have garnered acclaim, making her a trusted voice in today's dynamic media landscape.