Cancer Drug Shortages and Health Disparities

Learn more about how the cancer drug shortages are causing even more healthcare disparities

July 27, 2023
drug shortages

The United States currently grapples with one of its worst periods of cancer drug shortages, affecting the clinical care of thousands of patients. With chemotherapy - treatments delayed or cancelled, the crisis extends beyond immediate patient care, severely impeding the progress of crucial cancer research.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), out of their 608 trials, approximately 174 may be affected by these shortages. This number, however, does not account for the other trials that rely on these drugs or the potential trials researchers wish to commence but are unable to due to shortages.

Unfair distribution and health disparities

Unfortunately, the unfolding crisis has also unmasked glaring health disparities. Amid the shortage, pharmaceutical distributors have taken on the role of deciding which health systems receive the scarce drugs. Notably, there is a clear preference for large health systems, with rural community hospitals often left at a disadvantage. This discrimination in drug allocation deepens the health inequities between urban and rural areas, disproportionately affecting those who may already have limited access to quality healthcare.  

Additionally, the current drug shortage significantly hinders the goals of the Cancer Moonshot initiative launched by then Vice-President Joe Biden in 2016. Aimed at accelerating the rate of progress against cancer, the initiative sought to prioritize cutting-edge research at a national level. However, the escalating drug shortage has made even the most basic research challenging.

Another key issue is the scarcity of drugs has resulted in skyrocketing drug prices, creating a significant barrier for many individuals who are unable to afford essential treatments. Consequently, patients are left with limited options, resorting to seeking alternatives or, in some cases, going without crucial medical interventions — leading to greater levels of financial toxicity, and underscoring the need for preventative measures to cover costs of care for at-risk patients.  

Inhibiting clinical trials

The shortage also obstructs the execution of clinical trials, a vital component of cancer research and treatment advancement. Researchers nationwide highlight the frustration and emotional toll these shortages cause.

While the FDA is working to mitigate the crisis, researchers, patients and healthcare organizations remain caught in a precarious situation. The unpredictable nature of drug supplies makes planning trials increasingly difficult, with researchers having to consider the bleak possibility of their work becoming irrelevant due to delays.

Unveiling the realities of health inequality

This crisis exposes the stark reality of health disparities. The selection process by pharmaceutical distributors, favoring large health systems over rural hospitals, perpetuates inequalities in healthcare access.  

As healthcare professionals grapple with the harsh reality of drug shortages, they also confront the challenging task of providing equitable care to all their patients. This scenario highlights the urgent need for a multi-pronged response, one that addresses not only the immediate needs of patients but also the underlying health disparities that such crises reveal.  

In the face of this ongoing crisis, the nation must recommit to the pursuit of equitable healthcare for all. This involves reassessing our distribution strategies and making collective efforts to ensure that all health systems, whether urban or rural, can provide the crucial care that cancer patients need.