Hospitals confront a new opioid crisis: an alarming shortage of pain
he incident command system kicked in at Brigham and Women’s Hospital about a week ago. A large team of doctors, pharmacists, and nurses began assembling every morning to confront an emerging crisis with the potential to severely undermine care for patients.
The challenge was different than it was during the Boston Marathon bombing, another event that triggered the command response. This one wasn’t rushing toward caregivers as fast. But it was similarly daunting and logistically demanding: Amid a nationwide crisis caused by too-easy access to medical painkillers, hospitals are now struggling to find enough of that same class of drugs to keep their patients’ pain controlled.
That is the reality now facing Brigham and Women’s and other medical providers across the country. Production of injectable opioids has nearly ground to a halt due to manufacturing problems, creating a shortage of staple medications used to treat a wide array of patients. Alarms are now ringing at all kinds of medical providers, from sprawling academic hospitals to small hospice programs, and many are launching efforts to conserve injectable opioids and institute safeguards to prevent dosing errors that can result from rapid changes in medication regimens.
“Any shortage of these medicines has the potential to impact the ability to provide adequate pain management to patients admitted with painful conditions or patients undergoing surgeries,” said Dr. Charles Morris, associate chief medical officer at Brigham and Women’s. “We stood up this incident command response to make sure that this impact is not realized.”
These products, packaged in vials, patches, and syringes, are distinct from the prescription pills at the root of the nation’s opioid addiction crisis. They are distributed to hospitals and other medical providers that use them to treat patients undergoing major surgeries or those who are suffering from intense pain related to trauma or cancer.
The severity of the shortage, which has been brewing since last summer, only became clear in recent weeks after Pfizer Inc., the dominant manufacturer of injectable opioids, began notifying customers that it has halted production of some medicines and will not be able to fully restore its capacity until the first quarter of 2019. Some hospice providers in Florida, Maryland, and Hawaii are already reporting they have run out of some opioid products and are struggling to replenish supplies needed to help patients, according to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.
Pfizer has attributed the shortage to a problem with a third-party manufacturer that produces the pre-filled syringes that contain various formulations of opioids, including morphine, hydromorphone, and fentanyl.
Scott Knoer, chief of pharmacy at the Cleveland Clinic, said the hospital system is carefully monitoring inventory and using alternative treatments whenever possible. That might include giving patients oral opioid medicines, or using IV Tylenol when their pain can be managed with a less potent drug. But the price of IV Tylenol has also tripled since 2014, to $37 per vial compared to $2 per vial for IV morphine. That carries a significant budget impact, in addition to extra costs for staff members to work overtime to manage the opioid shortage and receive additional training.
“There is a real cost to drug shortages,” Knoer said. “This month it’s opiates. It’s going to be something else next month. This revolving door means something is always going to be short. You’re never over it.”