November 17, 2012
Paul Davis, the chief of a rural ambulance squad in southern Ohio, was down to his last vial of morphine earlier this fall when a woman with a broken leg needed a ride to the hospital.
The trip was 30 minutes, and the patient was in pain. But because of a nationwide shortage, his morphine supply had dwindled from four doses to just one, presenting Mr. Davis with a stark quandary. Should he treat the woman, who was clearly suffering? Or should he save it for a patient who might need it more?
In the end, he opted not to give her the morphine, a decision that haunts him still. “I just feel like I’m not doing my job,” said Mr. Davis, who is chief of the rescue squad in Vernon, Ohio. He has since refilled his supply. “I shouldn’t have to make those kinds of decisions.”
From rural ambulance squads to prestigious hospitals, health care workers are struggling to keep vital medicines in stock because of a drug shortage crisis that is proving to be stubbornly difficult to fix. Rationing is just one example of the extraordinary lengths being taken to address the shortage, which health care workers say has ceased to be a temporary emergency and is now a fact of life. In desperation, they are resorting to treating patients with less effective alternative medicines and using expired drugs. The Cleveland Clinic has hired a pharmacist whose only job is to track down hard-to-find drugs.
Caused largely by an array of manufacturing problems, the shortage has prompted Congressional hearings, a presidential order and pledges by generic drug makers to communicate better with federal regulators.