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Delayed surgeries and chemotherapy: Drug and supply shortages are hurting patients

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Hospitals have grappled with shortages with regularity, and a survey indicates that they are taking a toll on patient care.

Shortages of drugs, medical supplies and equipment are hurting patient care in hospitals.

That’s the main takeaway from a recent survey by ECRI, a patient safety organization, and its affiliate, the Institute for Safe Medication Practices. Some surgeries are getting postponed and cancer patients are seeing delays in chemotherapy treatments.

During the previous six months before the survey, 60% of the participants said they experienced shortages of more than 20 drugs, single-use supplies or other medical devices. Pharmacists, doctors and nurses working at a variety of hospitals participated in the survey.

Nearly three-quarters (74%) said the shortages impacted surgery or anesthesia. Some surgical procedures had to be rescheduled or canceled due to the lack of supplies, according to the survey.

Almost two-thirds (64%) said shortages affected emergency care, according to the survey.

Nearly half (49%) reported that shortages delayed patient treatment in some way. In some cases, cancer patients had chemotherapy delayed or modified. Some patients received reduced dosages.

Survey respondents also cited shortages of endotracheal tubes, especially for pediatric patients, along with pulmonary artery catheters.

Hospitals have grappled with shortages of supplies all too regularly in recent months, including shortages of cancer drugs at some systems.

Marcus Schabacker, president and CEO of ECRI, said in a statement that it’s clear the shortages are taking a toll and patient care is being affected.

“While medication and supply shortages have been widely reported across healthcare, we now know with certainty that these shortages are causing preventable harm and have the potential to cause even more if they are not addressed soon,” Schabacker, a board-certified anesthesiologist and intensive care specialist, said in a statement.

“There are strategies hospitals can use to reduce the impact of shortages, but they are a deviation from standard practice and resource-intensive—two characteristics that themselves can increase the likelihood of preventable harm.”

About a quarter of the survey’s participants said they knew of at least one medical error related to a shortage of drugs, supplies or devices in the previous six months.

Respondents cited some examples, including patients being given the incorrect dosage guidance on their medications.

Hospitals and health systems are turning to non-traditional suppliers to try and find drugs and equipment, but ECRI warns that could be dangerous.

ECRI says tests of nearly 200 KN95 masks from nontraditional sources found that 60%-70% filtered out smaller amounts of particulates than the manufacturers claimed. More than half of gowns from alternate suppliers didn’t meet safety standards from the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation, ECRI said.

The American Cancer Society issued a warning earlier this year that some chemotherapy drugs were in short supply, including treatments for triple-negative breast cancer, ovarian cancer and leukemia. Some of the shortages in cancer drugs this year have been especially difficult because, in some cases, there haven’t been clinically acceptable substitutes available.

“The shortage of certain cancer drugs has become a serious and life-threatening issue for cancer patients across the country,” Karen Knudsen, CEO of the American Cancer Society, said in a statement in May.

Nearly 200 respondents participated in the survey, with 49% coming from community hospitals, and 24% from teaching hospitals. Other participants came from critical access hospitals, pediatric hospitals, cancer hospitals and other healthcare sites. The survey was conducted in July and released Oct. 13.

Rita K. Jew, president of the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, said it’s time for “nationally coordinated solutions” to solve persistent shortages.

“The extent to which medication, supply, and equipment shortages are negatively impacting patient care is inexcusable,” Jew said in a statement.

In an interview with Chief Healthcare Executive® in March, Schabacher said the healthcare system must do more to address patient safety.

“We have become too complacent with accepting that medical errors, preventable medical errors, are happening,” Schabacker says.


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