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Drug shortages sweeping hospitals

American Cancer Society Volunteer Becky Duncan has come a long way in the year since she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. 

"The minute she told me I had cancer, I shut down," Duncan recalled. 

Then after the news settled in, Duncan and her doctors got to work treating the disease. After surgery and radiation, the next step was a Thyrogen injection. 

"That was supposed to determine if my thyroid was clear, if everything was clear in my neck," said Duncan. 

But there was one problem: The medicine was nowhere to be found. 

"They kept telling me it was on backorder," Duncan added. 

Thousands of patients were in the exact same situation as Duncan…going without.  The medication shortage meant she had to wait for six months to know whether or not she still had anything to worry about. And it was a stressful, scary six months. 

"Every little twinge you have, you think that something is wrong," Duncan said. "I want to make sure everything is gone. I want to know if some cancer cells are floating around in my body." 

A study released by the University of Utah's drug information service shows the number of medication shortages increased to 267 last year. It's a number that has continued to increase over recent years -- and that has those in the medical field concerned. 

Pharmacist Tim Martin says some are even referring to it as a healthcare crisis. 

"The amount of time that we have to spend dealing with [drug shortages] has increased greatly," he said. 

A lot of that time is spent managing the shortages and finding alternatives to unavailable drugs. Much of that falls on the shoulders of Dr. Ava Eure, a pharmacy manager.   


"A few years ago, we might spend two or three hours a week among all of us managing this and now it's probably 20 to 40 hours. It's probably the equivalent of one full-time person," she explained. 

The issue is costing hospitals time and money. But, as Duncan's case shows, it's also affecting patients. 

A study by the American Hospital Association shows 82 percent of hospitals that responded had to delay patient treatment and more than half were not always able to provide patients with recommended treatments. 

So what's causing all these shortages?

Martin says it's a variety of things, including natural disasters, technical issues and communication problems. 

He says distributors don't always give ample notification of a shortage to the FDA, leaving pharmacies to scramble to figure out what to do for their patients. 

"It hasn't reached its peak yet," Martin said. "It's likely to get worse before it get's better." 

One solution is to impose more federal oversight. There are several bills in Congress that address the issue.

Duncan says she just hopes those trying to find a solution remember how serious this issue really is. 

"You're dealing with people's lives," she said. "That's a scary thing." 

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