There’s an old saying that you never fully appreciate something until it’s gone—like how much you appreciate breathing clearly only after a cold stops up your nose. In hospitals, which are filled with millions of moving parts, people, and easily overlooked amenities, this can be especially true… something that doctors and nurses are dealing with across the country thanks to a nationwide shortage of a vital piece of hospital equipment—IV bags.
It’s been over four months since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, and the island is still picking up the pieces. Power outages, crime, and disease continue to slow the rebuilding process, which is a problem for U.S. hospitals. Normally, Puerto Rico supplies more than 44% of IV bags for the United States’ healthcare industry, but thanks to the hurricane, those IV bags are no longer being produced.
“I find it shocking that in the richest country in the world we run out of fundamental, basic supplies,” says Martha Kuhl, an oncology nurse at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland.
This certainly poses a problem for hospitals such as the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, which uses over 1,000 IV bags per day. And complicating matters further is the massive flu epidemic sweeping through the states. Some hospitals have even been forced to treat patients outside in tents, making this a very inconvenient (and potentially dangerous) time to deal with a medical supply shortage.
But nurses are becoming increasingly creative in dealing with the challenge, and patients are receiving their treatments uninterrupted and none-the-wiser.
“We are handling the situation very well. Every patient, every flu patient, every hospital is a little different,” says Mark Ross, an emergency preparedness southeastern regional manager, in an interview with CNN, “but we are holding our own with conservation and alternative methods so we can administer the right care for the right patient at the right time.”
Some of the methods being used to circumvent the problem range from using oral medications as much as possible, using larger IV bags (which are now also beginning to run low), employing the “push method” (injecting drugs and antibiotics directly), and some hospitals have even reverted back to using glass bottles instead of bags. In some cases, even the pharmacists are figuring out solutions.
“Our pharmacists started doing what we call compounding,” says Dr. O’Neil Britton of Massachusetts General. “[They] mix the medication themselves in the pharmacy, label it and send it to the floor. So this would be more like baking a cake from scratch rather than using cake mix.”
But even through the chaos of the flu season and IV bag shortage, hospitals are optimistic. Not only has the shortage identified a supply problem that can be addressed once the emergency has passed, but the issues have also demonstrated once again the resilience and creativity of those treating patients.
“Hospitals are fairly well-versed at dealing with a wide variety of challenges,” says Courtney Burke, COO for New York’s Healthcare Association, “and so they have a lot of excellent people on the ground who are helping them manage the situation.”
And we couldn’t agree more.
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