Cancer Drug Shortages and Health Disparities

Learn more about how chemotherapy drug shortages are causing even more healthcare disparities.

July 27, 2023
A vial with five syringe needles inserted into it

The United States is currently grappling with one of its worst periods of oncology drug shortages, affecting the clinical care of thousands of patients. With chemotherapy and other oncology treatments delayed or canceled due to shortages of necessary drugs, the crisis extends beyond immediate patient care, severely impeding the progress of crucial cancer research.

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

Unfair Distribution and Health Disparities

Unfortunately, this unfolding crisis has unmasked glaring disparities in healthcare provision. As the cancer drug shortage continues, pharmaceutical distributors have taken on the role of deciding which health systems receive these crucial drugs. Notably, there is a clear preference for large health systems, meaning that rural community hospitals are 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 chemotherapy 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 problem precipitated by the cancer drug shortage is skyrocketing 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. This reality leads to greater levels of financial toxicity, underscoring the need for preventative measures to cover the cost of care for at-risk patients.  

Inhibiting Clinical Trials

The chemotherapy drug 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 cancer drug supplies due to shortages makes planning trials increasingly difficult. Researchers are being compelled 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 cancer drug shortages, they’re also confronting the challenge 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 crises like cancer and other drug shortages 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. But it also means making collective efforts to ensure that all health systems, whether urban or rural, can transcend these shortages to offer the lifesaving chemotherapy and oncology drugs needed by those confronting cancer.