Healthcare News & Insights

Hospitals finding ways to cope with growing shortage

Hospitals across the nation may be facing one of the most wide-reaching — and most expensive — drug shortages ever. What is it? 

462939449Saline solution.

This product, which is used by 80% to 90% of patients at some point during a hospital stay, is in short supply and production is moving at a snail’s pace.

Demand for the pharmaceutical grade saltwater commonly used in hospitals and by emergency medical technicians to hydrate patients and clean wounds is so high, manufacturers say they won’t be able to catch up until next year, reports NPR blog Shots.

Though patients probably haven’t noticed the shortfall, hospitals are scrambling to make sure they don’t. Nurses are using smaller saline bags with slower drip rates and transitioning patients to oral hydration fluids sooner, if possible.

The FDA is trying to cope with the shortage by working with the nation’s top saline suppliers to keep production moving and has began importing saline from Spain and Norway.

Production problems & harsh flu season

Hospitals began feeling the pinch in January during a worse-than-average flu season where they saw an increased demand for intravenous fluids.

Then, production problems increased because of planned factory shutdowns during the winter holidays. Making matters worse, factory recalls of saline at three of the nation’s top suppliers slowed down production even more after Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors found leaky bags and contaminants in the solution.

Ramping up production of the drug isn’t easy, said Valerie Jensen, director of the drug shortage program at the FDA. Producing saline is complex, she said, taking three weeks and 30 steps to make one sterile batch from start to finish.

The FDA has set strict quality standards for the companies that manufacture saline and other IV drugs. Some manufacturers say overreaching FDA scrutiny has played a part in the shortfall.

Costs could spike

Two of the nation’s top suppliers of saline solution, Hospira, Inc., and Baxter, say they’re doing all they can to increase supply, but blame each other for the shortage. They allege that the main driver in the shortage was decreased product availability from competitors.

So far costs for saline are stable — running anywhere from $1.00 to $1.25 a bag — because prices are locked in through 2015. Once those contracts expire, hospitals could pay two or three times as much as they do now if the shortage continues.

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