Hospitals Are Scrambling for the 'Simplest of Drugs'

There's a critical shortage of sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted May 23, 2017 11:00 AM CDT

(Newser) – The "simplest of drugs" is in short supply at hospitals around the country, causing crucial surgeries and other treatments to be reprioritized, and it's a cheap drug whose main ingredient may be found in your own pantry, the New York Times reports. That drug is sodium bicarbonate solution, aka baking soda, which is used in chemo regimens, as a poison antidote, and to help patients whose blood has veered into acidic ranges, among other uses. But the nation's two lone suppliers, Pfizer and Amphastar, are suddenly unable to give medical facilities what they need, causing those facilities to hoard what's left in their own cabinets. "Does the immediate need of a patient outweigh the expected need of a patient?" says the head pharmacist at a hospital in Mobile, Ala., calling it a "medical and ethical question that goes beyond anything I've had to experience before."

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Supply problems can arise when things go wrong at the factory level or when suppliers of the raw ingredients have issues, leaving hospital officials irritated at the short notice they receive about a dearth. Right now on the FDA website, there are dozens of drugs said to be "currently in shortage," many of them critical generic injectables. Some pharmacy officials even harbor suspicions that manufacturers aren't investing enough to ensure adequate supplies since, per Ars Technica, generic drugs aren't the moneymakers. Some hospitals have "compounding pharmacies" where they whip up their own generic drugs, but that doesn't solve the larger problem. "It is unbelievably frustrating," a University of Utah drug shortage expert tells the Times, which notes Pfizer and Amphastar can't guarantee more sodium bicarbonate supplies until at least June and maybe not until August in some cases. (The "cartels" some think control the market.)

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