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Common Drugs That Are in Short Supply Now

Plus: tips for what to do when medications are missing from pharmacy shelves

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Many hospitals around the country are facing a troublesome situation: Two inexpensive and commonly used chemotherapy drugs are in short supply, causing a disruption in the care of some cancer patients who are fighting for their lives.

“I’ve had colleagues ask if I can see a patient or treat a patient because they don’t have access to the drug, or they’ve lost supply,” says Jyoti Patel, M.D., a professor of medicine at Northwestern University and medical director of thoracic oncology in the Lurie Cancer Center.

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Patel says her hospital has been well positioned throughout the nearly five-month-long shortage of the two medications, cisplatin and carboplatin. However, others in her region — and in communities across the U.S. — have been less fortunate. In some instances, doctors are being forced to decrease doses of these drugs or substitute in another therapy that may be less effective. In rare cases, treatment plans are being postponed.

The shortage of these two cancer treatments is just one example of many drug scarcities that are rattling the health care system and affecting the health and well-being of Americans.

Over the winter, a surge in flu cases caused shortages of oseltamivir (Tamiflu), an antiviral medication that can help keep a mild case of the flu from progressing into something more serious. At the same time, pharmacies were running low on some antibiotics, and stores in some regions couldn’t keep common pain relievers in stock.

Currently, everything from Adderall to lidocaine to popular diabetes medications are in short supply. “The shortages span the gamut from things that are nice to have to things that are utterly necessary,” says Megan Ranney, M.D., an emergency physician and deputy dean at Brown University’s School of Public Health.

Drug shortages are not new

Patients may be feeling the pinch now, but drug shortages are nothing new, explains Stephen W. Schondelmeyer, a professor at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy and co-principal investigator for the Resilient Drug Supply Project at the school’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP). One hundred and fifty to 200 medications are not available in the U.S. at any given time, he adds.

“On the one hand, that seems like a fairly small number,” Schondelmeyer says. “But to individual consumers, it can be everything.”

These shortages can happen for a number of reasons, ranging from high demand — like what we saw over the winter with strapped supplies of amoxicillin and medicine-cabinet must-haves — to problems with supply, say if a manufacturing plant closes or has issues with contaminants.

Another cause: Some medications become too expensive for drugmakers to produce, Ranney says, especially if they don’t generate much of a profit, as can be the case with generic drugs. “And it hurts the patient as a result,” she says.  


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Shortages can have serious consequences

For some individuals, drug shortages can have little to no impact — nonemergency procedures can be delayed, or another drug can sub in just fine. Others, however, are left without options.

5 Common Drugs That Are in Short Supply Right Now

  1. Adderall, used for ADHD
  2. Albuterol sulfate, used in inhalers for patients with lung diseases like asthma
  3. Amoxicillin (oral powder suspension), an antibiotic
  4. Cisplatin and carboplatin, chemotherapy drugs used to treat many cancers
  5. Semaglutide (Ozempic and Wegovy), used to treat diabetes and obesity 

Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Millions of people with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, have been struggling to find an alternative to Adderall as the shortage, first reported in October of 2022, stretches on in some areas. More than 4 percent of adults in the U.S. have ADHD.

Using the example of an antiseizure medication, Ranney says, “that may be the only medication that works well for that patient. And so when that medication is running short, they don’t have another alternative that’s going to control their seizures.”

Even if there are other medication alternatives, Ranney points out that switching a patient to a new prescription can be problematic. “It forces physicians, nurses and pharmacists to do calculations that they may not be used to or to try to figure out what the best substitute is. And it puts patients at risk of potential errors, particularly for kids where we do weight-based dosing,” she says.

In the case of cancer treatment, substitutions for cisplatin and carboplatin, which are generic medications, can be significantly more expensive, Northwestern’s Patel says.

Another potential issue: insurance coverage. “Not every patient’s insurance is going to cover every medication,” Ranney notes.

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What can patients do?

If a drug that you normally take — or find out you need to take — turns up short, there are some things you can do.

First, if you have cancer and are going through treatment, know that doctors whose hospitals are dealing with shortages are working with other health care providers to try to get their patients the best medications for their care. Professional organizations are also issuing new treatment guidelines taking the shortage into account. “We’re doing this in a systematic way, using the best evidence that we have,” Patel says.

As far as other medications go, ask your health care provider or pharmacist if the shortage appears to be temporary or if it will be long-term, Schondelmeyer says. “Because that affects your alternatives as well. In the short term, we might be able to find other medications that can treat you temporarily until we get the preferred drug back. But if the preferred drug is totally out of the market, then you have to find a totally new strategy for treating the patient’s situation,” he says.

If your doctor does need to switch you from one medication to another, ask how it will affect your insurance coverage and whether the new drug will cause any new side effects or interfere with anything else you’re taking.

“The biggest thing, really, is that it reminds us that our health care system remains quite fragile,” Ranney says. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tracks drug shortages and works with manufacturers to resolve them. Still, Schondelmeyer says, a better system is needed to help prevent them in the first place.

Editor's note: This story, originally published December 15, 2022, has been updated to reflect new information.

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