Now, an app that tracks medication shortages

Just how bad is the problem of pharmacies not getting enough medication to fill all their customers' prescriptions? Bad enough that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration on Wednesday released a new smartphone app to keep consumers updated on shortages.

The app, aimed at health care professionals as well as the public, is available for free in the Google Play store for phones running Google's (GOOG) Android and the Apple App Store for Apple's (AAPL) iPhones.

"Drugs in short supply can delay or deny needed care for patients," the FDA said in a statement. "Drug shortages may also lead health care professionals to rely on alternative drug products, which may be less effective or associated with higher risks than the drug in shortage."

It's not unusual these days for consumers to go to the pharmacy and get only half of their prescription filled because there isn't enough medicine to fill the rest, or get told to come back or try another pharmacy. Dozens of drugs are in the FDA's official drug shortage database.

The problem has been going on for the past few years. The FDA said it is limited in what it can do to prevent shortages but has been working with the industry to try to get control of the problem.

Among the reasons for the shortages, the FDA said, are quality and manufacturing issues, production delays and discontinuation of less profitable drugs.

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    Mitch Lipka is an award-winning consumer columnist. He was in charge of consumer news for AOL's personal finance site and was a senior editor at Consumer Reports. He was also a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, among other publications.