‘It will make you shake your head’: Drug shortage putting a strain on some health care providers

MOUNT JOY, LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa. -- A shortage of life-saving drugs is impacting some EMS companies in our area; paramedics say it can take months before they have some medications in their hands.

It doesn't sit well with Paramedic Rob Walker.

"It is medications you would never believe, and the list is long, and will make you shake your head," explained Walker.

A long list of high in demand drugs is in short supply, and it's putting a strain on Susquehanna Valley EMS.

"If you look at the list, you'll say, 'my mom takes that medication, my dad takes that for his high blood pressure,'" said Walker.

On the list? Medications like fentanyl, which is given to trauma patients, and ketamine, a safe sedative.

"A big one is epinephrine. We carry epinephrine with us that we can administer to help someone in anaphylaxis. It's hard to get epinephrine these days," explained Walker.

The shortage is also having an impact on how first responders administer life-saving drugs like sodium bicarbonate. It is used to treat patients in cardiac arrest.

It can come pre-packaged in a syringe, making it easy for paramedics to grab and go or it can appear in a bottle.

Paramedics have to draw the medication up in the bottle which takes time and creates a risk for medication error.

"It increases the risk for the paramedic giving the wrong dose or the wrong medication because the writing on the small viles is kind of tiny," explained Walker.

Besides not having appropriate doses or packaging, it can take months to resupply those medications.

"We kind of horse trade," said Walker. "We work with other EMS agencies. We get on the phone, 'what do you have?'" he said.

Walker says there is no easy solution; paramedics just get creative. The logistics team packages their own medications at times and stocks up on the drugs.

"We buy up as much as we can, put it on the shelf, and the risk is there - it expires before we use it," added Walker.

Because he says it's better to let it sit and possibly go to waste than not have it when it's needed the most.

On occasion, health providers are able to use expired medications, but only those approved by a state board, to make sure patients get what they need.

For a full list of medications in shortage from the Food and Drug Administration, click here. 

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