HealthFebruary 27, 2024

Drug shortages and hospital pharmacist burnout: How evolving challenges can be met with fresh answers

Where can hospital pharmacists turn as drug shortages worsen fatigue? The answer starts with understanding the evolution of supply chain challenges. 

Drug shortages are increasingly contributing to pharmacist burnout, and the downstream issues are creating new layers of concern—but technology is a light on the horizon for pharmacy leaders.

Today’s pharmacist is paying increasing attention to headlines around the globe, checking whether news in other regions could impact production or the pharmaceutical supply chain of drugs, non-active ingredients, containers, vials, and even packaging.

As the healthcare landscape becomes more complex through accelerating globalization, leaders will find increasing value in tools that provide clarity in the evidence, support efficiency, and enable alignment of drug and clinical information across the entire patient care journey.

Shortages create new downstream healthcare trends that worsen your pharmacist burnout

Healthcare trends in drug shortages are evolving to present entirely new challenges for hospital pharmacists.

Pharmacist involvement on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic increased their rates of burnout. But even as the pandemic has leveled out, burnout rates for pharmacists have held steady—88% of respondents to a 2023 survey by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society in the United Kingdom had a high risk of burnout, a trend that’s consistent with 2021 and 2020 rates. Pharmacists in the U.S. were found to take on more non-clinical duties than their community counterparts in supporting patients and staff, reporting feelings they had insufficient time to dedicate to patient education about medications. A 2021 Chinese study found that front line clinicians expect hospital pharmacists to be more deeply integrated into the care team as drug therapy experts who take part in clinical decision making.

And these pressures are being exacerbated by the downstream effects of long-term shortages. 

Counterfeit drugs test pharmacists

Drug shortages have been severe in western Asia, especially in countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Yemen, and Iran. The resulting vacuum has given rise to counterfeit medications, with as much as 35% of the region's supply being illicitly sourced and/or counterfeit. The region's pharmacists face the daunting task of distinguishing between fraudulent and legitimate medications. 

Substandard drugs jeopardize care and tax pharmacists

Drug shortages were a problem before the COVID-19 pandemic, and in many regions, they’ve resulted in using inferior drugs.

Italy’s policies of addressing drug shortages allows for the import of a drug from another country, a process that can involve bypassing drug regulators. Pharmacists have to step in, holding “direct personal responsibility” for determining the specifications of drugs that are excluded from European rules on quality, efficacy, and safety.

Rationing care is common

Drug shortages can also force additional responsibilities on pharmacists to allocate care.

Drug shortages in the United States jumped 30% between 2021 and 2022. In some health systems, dedicated pharmacists manage drug shortages, but not all hospitals have these resources. Pharmacists must then balance their duties with coming up with alternative treatment opportunities and regimens, which often aren’t based on evidence.

New opportunists are taking advantage

Some countries are navigating shortages that are increasingly complicated by corruption and embezzlement.

In Zambia, pharmacists are facing ongoing shortages across government health facilities. The country’s drug stock levels were as low as 53.1% in late 2023, limiting the type of care healthcare workers can offer and forcing them to turn patients away to more expensive private options.  

Answers emerge in a shifting healthcare ecosystem

As pharmacists face deepening drug supply challenges that also exacerbate burnout, they can look to advanced solutions in pharmacy workflows to create increased efficiency for both pharmacists and technicians.

In response to the ongoing drug shortages, the International Pharmaceutical Federation proposed six recommendations that can be used as a guideline for all pharmacy leaders. These include areas such as:

  1. Establishing a means of providing information on shortages.
  2. Determining lists of critical and vulnerable products.
  3. Moving toward active procurement processes to assure continuity of supply of quality medicines.
  4. Removing unnecessary variability of regulatory practices.
  5. Establishing a body charged with gathering and sharing information about demand and supply for medicines.
  6. Developing evidence-based risk mitigation strategies.

To translate these recommendations into actionable decisions, pharmacists should consider adopting new technology solutions. Outcomes that support decision making should be a priority, including:

  • Simplifying access to healthcare and drug information (including shortages) to ease pharmacist workload.
  • Improving clinical decision making across teams to reduce variability and inappropriate utilization.
  • Seamless workflow integration to power fast, safe, effective, and compliant decision making.
  • Optimized patient care based on the latest evidence to reduce staff burnout.

This class of solution can be implemented on its own or be used to augment government imposed technology resources.

As drug shortages continue to exacerbate burnout among your pharmacists, healthcare leaders have increasing opportunities to not only mitigate fatigue but also leverage technology to improve the clinician experience even as pressures increase in the future.

To learn more, download the eBook, The value of drug information.

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