Providers must inform patients how the prescription drug shortage impacts their care

The shortage of prescription drugs in the United States is increasingly placing hospitals, healthcare providers and physicians in the ethical quandary of deciding who will get the antibiotics, cancer drugs or pain medication they need and who will not. 

But patients have a civil right to know how the drug shortage impacts their care and how hospitals choose which patients receive medications, according to an article published by U.S . News & World Report.

The drug shortage is forcing hospitals to ration treatments. But how hospitals decide on which patients receive drugs varies from institution to institution. Some hospitals have ethical boards while at other healthcare institutions, the decisions are left up to individual physicians, pharmacists or even pharmaceutical executives. 

Shortages of life-saving medications have surged 400 percent for U.S. emergency departments since 2008, according to a report published earlier this year. The reasons for the shortage include manufacturing delays, shortage of raw materials and issues of supply and demand.

However, law professors Wendy F. Hensel and Leslie W. Wolf wrote in the U.S. News piece that patients are currently left in the dark regarding how the drug shortage may "delay their recovery, increase their pain or, in some cases, potentially accelerate their death."

The authors note that civil rights laws and state laws regarding informed consent apply to patients even in times of medical emergency or critical shortages. Transparency is the key to ensuring fairness, they argued.

"The drug shortages are not likely to go away any time soon," they wrote. "Although the medical profession must make hard choices about how to allocate care, these decisions need not and should not be shrouded in mystery."

To learn more:
- read the article

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