Alberta doctors grapple with drug shortage

An Alberta doctor says a growing national hospital drug shortage is forcing him consider alternatives when treating patients

An Alberta doctor says a growing national hospital drug shortage is forcing him consider alternatives when treating patients.

"(Health officials) are trying to keep us supplied but it's a week-by-week basis," said Peace River physician Dr. Dave Welch. "It makes you think more when you start prescribing medications."

Dr. Dave Welch, a physician in Peace River, spoke to CBC News via Skype. (CBC)

The shortage is a result of a decision by Quebec-based manufacturer Sandoz to stop making some painkillers, antibiotics and anesthetics while it improves standards at its plant in Boucherville.

The plant is undergoing the upgrade to address concerns raised by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The company said Monday that there was a fire in the plant's boiler room on the weekend.

The decision to suspend production has led hospitals across Canada to scramble to find back-up supplies.

Welch said if alternative sources for these medications aren't found, it could lead to a situation of not "will we run out" but "when are we going to run out."

Welch said the shortage has already led him to make a tough call over the care of one of his terminally-ill patients, who was taking high doses of morphine.

His stock of morphine would run short if he continued the doses, so he and the family decided to try another painkiller. The patient died before Welch had to make the switch.

Officials with Alberta Health Services are asking doctors to conserve medication every chance they can.

But Jeff Morrison, the director of government relations and public affairs for the Canadian Pharmacists' Association, said hospitals and provinces could have avoided problems with better planning.

"We would say to any group-purchasing organization or hospital or provincial government entering into these types of negotiations is just be very careful," he said.

"And try and ensure that there are secondary or tertiary suppliers of that product in case your primary supplier can't deliver, as is what happened with Sandoz over the past couple weeks."

Health officials say Sandoz  has promised Alberta a larger share of crucial drugs like morphine starting this Friday