Area clinics, patients harmed by drug shortages

Patients, hospitals and clinics around the Grand Strand and Pee Dee are feeling the impact of drug shortages that will likely make 2011 a record-setting year for deficiencies of prescription medications, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA reports that about 180 drugs are in short supply this year.

Shortages of cancer drugs in particular are having an impact on area oncology patients.

At Coastal Cancer Center in Myrtle Beach, oncologist Dr. Vijay Paudel said deficiencies of chemotherapy drugs seem to fluctuate, with shortages resolving for awhile and then later reappearing.

Paudel said at first, he thought the shortages were simply a matter of manufacturers not being able to keep up with demand, but now it appears there's more to it than that, since the shortages are more pronounced with generics - that don't generate the same profits - than with branded drugs. "We're noticing that manufacturers may not necessarily have incentive to produce these drugs, and the ability to keep up with demand and actually be a profitable company is challenging because a generic drug is a lot more cheaper than a branded drug."

So far, Paudel said oncologists at his practice have been able to substitute other chemotherapy drugs where appropriate, but there are some types of cancers where that becomes more difficult. "Specifically in breast cancer, there's a branded drug that we use called Herceptin. Fortunately there's no shortage to that because that's a branded drug, but let's say there's a shortage of that, we'd be stuck," he said. "There is no substitute for that drug."

In South Carolina, Paudel said he doesn't believe the impact of the shortages ha ve reached the point where patients are dying prematurely due to lack of a certain medication, but it may be happening in large medical centers in other parts of the country. For example, some of the drugs used to treat acute leukemia are critical, he said, and if the drugs are not available, treatment is delayed and that can lead to earlier deaths.

The owner of Lee's Inlet Apothecary in Murrells Inlet says the problem with drug shortages for his customers mostly comes down to inconvenience and frustration when they can't get the medication they've been prescribed.

"Even though the patient believes you, they're just frustrated and they want results, they don't really care about the story involved," said pharmacist Willie Lee.

Lee said he works with Pure Compounding of Myrtle Beach, a pharmacy that does its own mixing of drugs, which means the pharmacy may be able to make a particular prescription medication that's in shortage.

Also as an independent pharmacist, Lee said he has sources to obtain drugs that may not be available to larger companies. Those sources aren't bigger, but they're different, he said. "Sometimes when (the larger companies) are out, we still have the ability to get it, and that's the case. At this point, we're able to get some medications right now that have been short lately."

Lee believes changes in how the FDA regulates drug manufacturers might be contributing to the shortages. "I think some drug companies have been told to cease and desist or stop making a certain drug, which then redirects the demand to another company that probably wasn't use to having that much demand on them, so a tightening of laws could be part of the problem."

But when the shortages will be resolved is harder to figure out. "As far as predicting, who knows? I really don't."