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Region's hospitals work around IV-bag shortage

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Midstate hospitals expressed confidence in their ability to respond to an ongoing IV-bag shortage worsened by Hurricane Maria.

When the storm impacted the island territory hit Puerto Rico in September, it devastated highways, ports, and the electrical grid, debilitating many of the industries based on the island.

While those in the storm's immediate path continue to recover, hospitals across the country are feeling the effects of the storm on a key Puerto Rican manufacturer of IV bags.

The storm only worsened an existing shortage hospitals have been working around since 2014, said Mark Ross, regional manager for the southeastern emergency preparedness team of the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania.

"This has been a situation that has been occurring to some degree for a couple of years now," said Ross.

The bags affected by the shortage are used to administer intravenous medications to patients as well as keep them hydrated. Even with the record-setting flu season, Ross and others feel confident hospitals are prepared.

"We routinely work with our members and exercise and train and come up with protocols for dealing with critical supply shortages. This is something we’ve worked for years, and that training and the plans and procedures to deal with critical supply shortages has really paid for us here in Pennsylvania," said Ross.

Hospitals are ensuring that, even with the shortage, medications are reaching the people who need them most. "We need to be sure we’re using the right medication for the right patient at the right time to make sure their clinical outcomes are positive," said Ross.

Food & Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement last November the FDA was "actively working" to manage the shortage through on-the-ground measures in Puerto Rico and temporarily lifting some regulations, such as allowing hospitals to purchase the bags from companies outside the United States.

Hospitals are shifting some practices to both save on supply and ensure medications administered through an IV are available for the patients who need them.

"We have been evaluating our inventory of our IV solutions on a daily basis, and we’re looking on a systemwide level of what is needed based on patient need for that day. We’re shifting stock as necessary," said Holly Bones, system director of pharmacy procurement and formulary services for Geisinger hospitals.

IV saline treatments are frequently used to help fight dehydration. In response to the shortage, said Bones, patients who are able to drink water will be asked to drink water instead.

"Obviously, we have to treat the symptoms of the flu, and one of the primary means of treating patients with the flu is to keep them hydrated," said Bones.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center sought to assure patients the hospital was taking similar conservation measures.

"In a broader sense, drug and supply shortages are nothing new for hospitals. We have a task force that regularly discusses such issues and develops plans to manage any current or anticipated shortages in a way that ensures we continue to meet the needs of our patients," the statement said. 

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Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter covers health care news for the Central Penn Business Journal. Email her at

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