How to Handle the Next Big Drug Shortage

The independent pharmacy industry encourages you to be ahead of the game. The most successful pharmacies are the proactive ones that take action and take care of problems before they grow into something even more serious.

Drug shortages are nothing new in the industry, but the COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse.

Shortages of maintenance medications and vaccines have become more frequent, making pharmacies scramble to figure out how they can fill their empty shelves.

Your pharmacy’s success is heavily defined by problem-solving. With the correct information and resources, you can meet the next or current drug shortage head-on with clarity and a clear plan of action.  

Why Do Drug Shortages Happen?

A medication’s inventory can run low for a variety of reasons. The slightest shipping hiccup can cause days’ or even weeks' worth of delays, so even a non-medical issue can directly impact your pharmacy’s inventory.

A shortage may occur when a certain ingredient needed to develop a medication is unavailable. A single tablet often requires a bevy of ingredients to be properly created and a single missing piece can stop development dead in its tracks.

Manufacturer recalls happen every so often as well. A single ingredient might be recalled by the FDA, causing pharmacists to clear out entire sections of their inventory that have a certain lot number.

Not to mention, you’ll have to tell your patients in a way that doesn’t cause mass hysteria. Some of these recalls are routine and simply done as preventive measures. Others, however, can yield truly harmful results if not properly taken care of.

Other times, however rare, a medication is straight-up discontinued. Why would a manufacturer cease production of a medication? More often than not, it’s simply business.

Not enough patients are taking the medication, so there isn’t enough demand to justify further production. Simple as that.

So a drug shortage is happening. Patients are looking to you for answers and counsel as they fear they’ll soon be out of medication. What are you going to do about it?

1. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Honesty is the best policy, and that goes double for the healthcare sector. You’ll never want to leave your customer base in the dark, let alone regarding whether or not they can get their medications on time.

This means being proactive and telling your patients the reality of the situation sooner than later. Sure, there might be some frustration and confusion at first, but it’s always better to deal with a problem at first instead of letting it fester and worsen over time. It’s like taking medicine: taking care of the problem before growing into something major.

2. Stock Up, Prevent a Large Shortage

Drug shortages almost never play favorites but it always feels like it does. It’s as if your pharmacy’s most popular medication is in danger of being on backorder every so often.

Whether it’s a maintenance drug or a popular antibiotic prescribed by the clinic across the street, don’t let hindsight get the better of you — plan ahead and order an extra supply of that drug.

Certain vendors naturally impose limits on how much you can order (especially controlled medications) so you’ll need to work within certain parameters.

Still, going that extra mile will make the next or this current shortage a little more bearable for both your pharmacy and your patients.

3. Use Another Manufacturer — the Right One

An upside to generic medications hitting the market is that multiple manufacturers provide the same exact drug, resolving some shortages with a few clicks of the mouse. It’s a quick, relatively painless way to resolve the latest shortage scare.

A potential downside to the menagerie of generic medications is exactly that: there are so many to choose from.

Wide availability leads to an equally sizable amount of setbacks: the alternative might be way more expensive than the ones you usually order, certain insurance plans might not cover this manufacturer, and a certain inactive ingredient could contain a strong allergen for your patients.

Even something like the different shape or color of the tablet could cause mass concern for your patients.

Should you decide to go with a different manufacturer, always assure your patient that they are in fact getting the exact same drug as before — just with a different coat of paint.

4. Contact Your Primary Vendor

Some shortages directly affect a sole manufacturer, and it just might be the one manufacturer preferred by the big three: your pharmacy, your patients, and your patients’ insurance plans.

In the event of a manufacturer-specific shortage, regularly ask them for updates so you can plan for the days — and even weeks — ahead. As stated earlier, communication is an absolute necessity, so don’t hesitate to ask your vendor about the shortage. Your patients will inevitably ask for updates too, so don’t get caught empty-handed.

5. Call the Doctor

Your vendor tells you a drug is on indefinite backorder. You’re now talking to a patient who’s completely out of said medication. What do you do?

Since you can’t modify a prescription on a whim, contact the patient’s doctor and explain the situation. Request a substitute medication or a slightly modified dose (Lisinopril 10mg 1QD is now Lisinopril 5mg 2QD).

It’s inconvenient at first but at least your patient isn’t going without their medication. Your patients shouldn’t suffer because of a current drug shortage.

6. Have a Software that Helps You Out

Above all, make sure your pharmacy software system accurately reflects your inventory. Have a software system that does all the inventory heavy lifting by automatically updating your on-hand inventory after each fill. With your software’s help, you can make inventory decisions regarding a potential shortage at a moment’s notice.

Have a pharmacy software system that allows you to efficiently tackle problems without neglecting others.

Our Compare Software page lends insight into which software system may work best for you and your independent pharmacy’s needs.

How Will You Handle the Next Drug Shortage?

Drug shortages are never convenient, nor do they happen at a convenient time. All you can do is plan ahead and weather the impending storm as much as you can.

Not only will your pharmacy retain a great deal of efficiency, but your patients will appreciate your transparency and proactiveness in resolving the situation.

The FDA has a Drug Shortage database that provides status updates on the latest drug shortages. For the most up-to-date information on a shortage, the FDA recommends directly contacting the manufacturer.