Imagine walking into your local pharmacy to obtain fever reducing medication for your small child, and instead you encounter an empty shelf. Now imagine you visit your pharmacy for your maintenance medication such as albuterol and are told it cannot be filled due to a supply issue. Unfortunately, it is not necessary to imagine these two scenarios because it has, and can continue to happen due to the current drug shortage problem in our society. What measures are being taken to remedy this, or has the issue continued to worsen over time? The answers are not easy, and regrettably the trend is showing that the problem is not getting better. During a time when pharmacies in certain areas are already limited, there is now the added issue of these same communities finding it even more difficult to get their needed medication due to accessibility and supply issues.
The drug shortage peaked to almost 300 cases towards the end of last year. Many saw the issue worsen during the RSV/Cold/Flu/COVID-19 season when parents could not find ibuprofen or acetaminophen for their young children. Several months later this is still an issue not showing signs of getting better. There are many causes for this dilemma, including manufacturing issues that are impacted by quality control. The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated concerns and exposed weakened areas within supply chains, distribution, and access.
The problem now has reached critical levels involving cancer treatment medications, antibiotics, and cold medications. Additionally, drugs used for surgical and other medical procedures for sedation, IV saline, and morphine injections are also causing medical professionals to make difficult decisions regarding prioritizing treatments.
As with most things, access to healthy outcomes are often influenced by outlying factors such as where you live, your education, and income levels. Oftentimes, race functions as an additional factor and an added construct in determining what type of healthcare treatment you may receive. In this case, race and your economic status also dictates how easy you can attain needed medications. Our elderly and members of undeserved communities are vulnerable to these deficiencies concerning medication availability. While skilled pharmacists in wealthy hospitals can find a work-around by creating or compounding medications into different doses, hospitals in less affluent areas may not have the resources to do this. It also can be pointed out that this practice is not without its own risk and is prone to human error.
The problem standing in the way of so many receiving lifesaving or maintenance medication comes down to policy and structure. In a modern society where there is a luxury to have medication there should be no excuse not to have a plan in place to manufacture it in a way to ensure adequate supply at all times. A proper system of checks and balances, accountability and sufficient oversight of a process has been missing for decades and now this has become yet another fallout of the pandemic.
Revamped rules and regulations are needed to correct this and to decrease the chance of this happening in the future. Standing in the way of this is corporate greed, profit and vulnerabilities exposed by inadequate oversight of the manufacturing process. Unfortunately, the demand and need for lifesaving drugs is not enough of an incentive for some of the companies that have the capability to correct access levels. Oftentimes, drug manufacturers will raise prices just because of the demand. Recently, a pharmaceutical company decided to raise their price for a vaccine. They simply decided to take this unfavorable action because they can.
It will be hard to depict where this issue will land. It will require a solution that is much more nuanced due to the fact that there are many factors impacting the current state of our drug market. Unfortunately, the dire need of consumers is not the priority when it comes to profits for many companies. Is the answer to stockpile medications that could lead to mass panic? No, due to the fact that this cannot be an acceptable remedy. Creating a mass panic will unfairly impact marginalized communities.
The time to change this pattern is now, while we can still learn from and correct our mistakes. We have the opportunity to share resources and create multiple methods of producing drugs, instead of relying on one company. The baby formula shortage fiasco should be a learning model of what not to let happen again with one company monopolizing production of any product.
We as consumers have the unique opportunity at this moment to demand better. It is our call to action to hold those accountable for selling and manufacturing pharmaceutical drugs to do better. A call to action can include engaging with your healthcare provider, local pharmacy, or local elected leader to better inform and prepare you on how to navigate this crisis. Preparation in advance, as opposed to doing so in the middle of the crisis, will go a long way in reducing mass panic and fears. The time to prepare is now before the potential drug apocalypse can occur.