‘Life and death situation’: Doctors forced to make tough decisions over nationwide drug shortage

Doctors are being forced to make life-or-death decisions because of a nationwide medication shortage.

It’s a problem not only impacting the pharmacy down the street but hospitals across metro Atlanta and beyond as well.

“I do not think that the average patient or the average loved one of a patient realizes that medication shortages are directly impacting the care that they’re receiving,” said Dr. Andrea Sikora, a pharmacist with Augusta University Health Hospital and professor at the University of Georgia. “This is totally unprecedented.”

Currently, the FDA reports nearly 200 drugs are in their drug shortage database. Those medications include morphine, potassium, and amoxicillin—an antibiotic used to treat average infections.

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Cartersville mother Ashley Henderson told Channel 2 investigative reporter Ashli Lincoln that her 11-year-old son Michael suffered from an ear infection and was unable to find a pharmacy with the antibiotic amoxicillin.

“It was really frustrating. I had to go to four different pharmacies,” Henderson said. “I finally caught a little mom-and-pop pharmacy in Cartersville and they’re like, ‘We have one more left. We’ll hold it for 30 minutes, get your prescription and come on.’”

“Those are just never situations you really want to be a part of,” Sikora said.


Sikora told Lincoln that doctors make critical decisions because of the shortage.

“Literally life and death situation,” Sikora said.

Her worst case involved pharmacists managing a shortage of sodium bicarbonate. It’s commonly used to treat acid indigestion but is lifesaving in a hospital.

Sikora said they had to decide between giving the last vials either to two cancer patients or a cardiac arrest patient. The decision went in favor of the cancer patients.

“That’s never a situation you really want to be in,” Sikora said.

The Federal Drug Administration declined Channel 2 Action News’ request for an interview but said in an email that they “cannot require a pharmaceutical company to make a drug, make more of a drug, or change the distribution of a drug,” but they work “closely with manufacturers to prevent or reduce the impact of shortages.”

In a pre-COVID-19 pandemic report, an FDA-led task force blamed some shortages on a lack of incentives for drug makers to produce less profitable drugs and trouble recovering from logistical and regulatory disruption.

“This should not be happening in this country,” said U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, who spent three decades as a savannah area pharmacist. “There’s no excuse for those medications not to be available in this country. And that’s what we need to be better prepared for.”

About 97% percent of all antibiotics in the United States come from China, according to the Department of Commerce.

Last year, Carter introduced legislation to help manufacture more pharmaceuticals here in the US, and last month he sponsored a three-year pilot program creating an essential medicine strategic stockpile of 50 generic drugs at risk for supply shortages.

“This is just one of the examples of how we at the federal level can help to alleviate this kind of problem in the future,” Carter said.

“It shouldn’t be this hard to find something to help your kid feel better,” Henderson said.

Both Carter and Sikora say the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted problems that already existed in the industry.