Paramedics feel pressure of drug shortages, work to see patients don't

achristnovich@islandpacket.comSeptember 1, 2012 

Medicine for Beaufort and Hilton Head Island ambulances have fluctuated for more than a year because of a nationwide prescription drug shortage, but emergency medical service officials say patient care has not suffered.

Valium, dextrose, epinephrineand sodium bicarbonate are the drugs most often in short supply, Beaufort County and Hilton Head EMS officials say. Those medicines are used to treat pain or seizures, diabetes problems, and cardiac arrest, respectively.

"We have never run out of any drug," Town of Head Island Fire & Rescue Division spokeswoman Joheida Fister said Friday. However, she added some drugs are harder to come by than others. "We've had to rethink how we deploy our drugs to our medical units."

Many reasons are cited for the shortages -- heavier narcotics regulations, problems with manufacturing quality and discontinuations, according to the Food and Drug Administration's website.

President Barack Obama signed the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act in July, which gives the FDA more power to address causes of shortages.

However, there is no indication prescription-drug supplies will rebound quickly, officials here say.

"It's been very sporadic whether a vendor has (a drug) or not," Fister said, adding the cost for some drugs has also increased by as much as 40 percent. "It's one of those things where you may get it one week, and you go to order it and can't get it the next week."

As a result, Hilton Head ambulances now keep fewer doses of certain medicines in each unit, Fister said. For example, 20 doses of epinephrine were kept in each unit, but now only 12 are kept on board. Five or six doses are needed per cardiac arrest case, Fister said.

A battalion chief, who accompanies ambulances on most calls, also keeps an extra 15 doses of certain drugs to make sure units don't run out, Fister said.

Beaufort emergency responders have been substituting some of the more scarce drugs by combining three or four more common medicines to create the same effect, Beaufort County spokeswoman Joy Nelson said.

"There might be more steps to treating a patient but they're still treating them with the same quality," Nelson said. "Drug substitution has been easy to take care of."

Follow reporter Anne Christnovich at

Related content:

National drug shortages cause local EMS to scramble, Aug. 28, 2012

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