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Study: Drug Shortages Force Doctors To Change, Delay Cancer Treatment

Nine of 10 cancer doctors nationwide have had to delay or change chemotherapy treatments because of drug shortages. That's according to a study released last week, and it's another example of how shortages affect patients.

The study is based on the responses of about 240 health professionals, and it's the first one to examine what drug shortages mean for cancer treatment across the country.

Dr. James Hoffman of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital is the senior author.

"We knew from our personal day-in and day-out experiences how challenging (the drug shortage problem) was, but it was not really characterized in any rigorous way," he said. "And that's now what we've done."

The study took place from 2010 to 2011, and 98 percent of respondents dealt with at least one cancer drug shortage during that period. In addition, 93 percent of respondents had to delay or change treatments.

Dr. Hoffman said delaying treatment can take a physical and psychological toll on patients. And he said changing treatment opens a sort of Pandora's box.

"If you have to switch to an alternative agent, there are multiple levels of risk for patient harm," he said.

Doctors or nurses could give patients the wrong dose of the new drug because they're not familiar with it. Or even if it is dosed correctly, it may not work as well.

That was the finding of a St. Jude study on a specific drug shortage. Young patients who were switched to a drug doctors thought was a "no-brainer" were much more likely to still have cancer two years later.