Updated 8:40 am, 9/27/11
We like to think that, here in the United States, if we are or a family member is seriously ill, and there's a drug to treat the illness, that drug will be readily available.
Now we know, however, that we can't depend on that.
According to a report, more than 200 drugs are in short supply, and 82 percent of hospitals surveyed say drug shortages have forced them to delay treatments.
The Food and Drug Administration held a meeting Monday to address the problem.
CBS News medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook reports that the FDA panel heard just how frustrated doctors are about the shortage of drugs.
"Pharmaceutical representatives spend bazillions of dollars trying to influence me to buy their drug. I'll buy 'em. I'll use 'em ... just make 'em," said Dr. Frederick C. Blum with the American College of Emergency Physicians.
Drugs used by hospitals make up the bulk of the more than 200 medications in critical short supply. About 87 percent are generic, not brand name. According to the FDA, in the last five years, drug shortages have tripled.
Valierie Jensen has been studying the problem for the FDA.
"Many of them have involved cancer drugs, oncology drugs, as well as anesthesia drugs and other drugs for critical care," Jensen said.
That's what happened to 56-year-old Marcia Goodman. We visited her last month just as she was getting ready to be treated for ovarian cancer with the chemotherapy agent Doxil, but her clinic had run out.
"I was just starting to feel hopeful this drug would work. My heart just sank," Goodman said.
She was forced to use a different drug; but has since found a supply of Doxil. However, the drug remains hard to find.
There are several reasons for the shortages. Pharmaceutical companies are cutting production of some generic drugs because they're less profitable than brand name drugs. Shortages also result from manufacturing and quality control problems. Some hospitals and suppliers even begin to hoard some drugs if they get a hint that a shortage is coming.
"We're doing everything that we can within our authority," Jensen said.
But the FDA's authority is limited, especially when a company's profits are at stake.
"One thing that really helps us is when companies let us know. If they let us know about that, we can help fix that problem in some cases," Jensen said.
The FDA does not have the authority to compel a pharmaceutical company to make a particular drug. What they can do is play matchmaker; If one company decides to stop making a drug, they can help another company increase production to take up the slack.
Meanwhile, Marcia Goodman is doing better, but the alternative drug she took had serious side effects, and the battle to obtain a steady supply of Doxil has been a nightmare.
Marcia Goodman was able to access Doxil through the DOXIL C.A.R.E.S. Physician Access Program administered by Janssen, the company that makes the drug. The program is the only way for physicians and patients to obtain Doxil. The latest communication about the supply situation was posted on September 23rd and can be found at www.DOXIL.com.
Follow Dr. Jon LaPook on Twitter at @DrLaPook