Drug Shortages

Published: February 05, 2021
Barbara Young
By Barbara Young, PharmD

Medications are important to treat or control a variety of health conditions. When medications are in short supply, it can cause a delay in necessary medical procedures, a medication error, or result in the substitution of an effective medication with a less effective medication. Staying informed and learning more about shortages can help you ask questions when visiting the hospital, doctor’s office, clinic, or pharmacy. Here is information about drug shortages and what to do if your medication is not available.

Why are there so many shortages?
There are many reasons for drug shortages. The most frequent causes are as follows:

  • Production of drugs may be temporarily stopped due to quality problems with how the drugs are made.
  • Locations where drugs are made may be affected by natural disasters or other emergencies that prevent making or shipping drugs.
  • Drug manufacturers may be unable to get some active ingredients or containers (for example, glass vials or syringes) from suppliers.
  • Companies may make a business decision to stop making a product.
  • If two companies that make the same product merge, less of a drug may be available after the merger.
If one of my medications isn’t available when I’m hospitalized, how will that affect my care?
Hospitals work very hard to keep patients safe. If a medication is in shortage and cannot be used to treat you, your healthcare team may find another way to give you the same medication (for example, as an oral pill instead of an injection) or find a different medication altogether.

What if the new medication isn’t right for me or doesn’t work?
Talk to your pharmacist or healthcare provider if you do not feel better or if you experience unexpected side effects when your medication is changed.

Why can’t we get mediations from foreign countries?
Most medications that are available in other countries are not made according to U.S. standards. Medications are also in short supply in many other countries. During some severe drug shortages, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may allow importing medications from other countries if it can ensure safety and quality standards are met.

What if I can find my medication outside the U.S?
Federal laws and the FDA regulate the process of bringing medications from another country into the U.S. Your hospital may not be able to use a foreign medication if its quality and safety can’t be checked. You should discuss this with your doctor and pharmacist.

What is being done to reduce shortages?
Healthcare organizations are working with Congress, drug manufacturers, and the FDA to prevent or reduce drug shortages. Some regulations have been changed since drug shortages became a major issue several years ago.


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