Study: Cancer drug shortage hits 83% of doctors

PHILADELPHIA, PA.; June 3, 2013

This is a very important meeting: ASCO, the annual conference of oncologists, or cancer specialists.

Studies released there lay the groundwork for the care local patients receive.

One study discussed at the meeting shows that women with early-stage breast cancer who took tamoxifen for 10 years, compared to the standard 5 years, had much less chance of the cancer coming back.

Other research shows that radiation could spare some early-stage breast cancer patients a second round of surgery.

That surgery, to remove lymph nodes which test positive for cancerous cells, often raises the risk for lymphedema - a painful swelling of the arm.

However, there was also some sobering news from a survey done at the University of Pennsylvania.

It shows that the cancer drug shortage that's been a problem since 2006 is not getting any better.

Dr. Keerthi Gogineni surveyed 250 cancer doctors, and found that the shortages are having a serious effect on the drugs doctors are giving patients.

"Nearly 80 per cent had to make modifications by either switching the treatment regimens they were using or they had to substitute a different drug partway through therapy. in some instances, about 43 % of the time they had to delay treatment," she told Action News.

She went on, "There were some occasions where there was too little drug and too many patients, so 37% had to actually choose which patient was going to receive the drug in short supply."

She said the shortage is affecting community cancer centers and big academic teaching hospitals equally.

Dr. Gogineni says no one knows how changing drugs affects remission or survival rates, because it's never been studied.

The shortage is also affecting cost - the colon cancer drug Leukovorin Calcium is $16, however, it's been unavailable or in short supply. The substitute, the brand-name Fusilev, is $300.

And pharmacists are spending more time and more effort finding supplies.

Donna Capozzi, Pharm.D., a Penn Medicine oncology pharmacist, says, "One week, we may be able to get drug from a particular source. the next week, that may not be true."

So, what's to blame for the shortages? In some cases, it's production problems or a lack of extra production capacity at manufacturing plans. In other cases, companies are choosing to focus on the more expensive branded drugs over the less expensive generic medications. However, to keep costs down, generics are widely used.

The government has tried to step in to help, ordering gthe FDA to allow more imported drugs and to give doctors earlier warning of shortages.

But Dr. Gogineni says her survey shows no signs the efforts are easing the shortages.

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