A national shortage of cancer drugs has local hospitals scrambling to ensure that patients receive potentially life-saving medications.

A national shortage of cancer drugs has local hospitals scrambling to ensure that patients receive potentially life-saving medications.

Rogue Valley Medical Center and Providence Medical Center are working closely together to closely monitor and share the available cancer treatment drugs in the face of the shortage.

So far, Southern Oregon's hospitals have not run out of cancer drugs.

"Right now we're doing OK," said RVMC pharmacist Rani Scranton. "But from what I've read in medical journals, this drug shortage is only going to get worse."

Local pharmacists have devised a system that ensures patients can complete their chemotherapy.

Sue Kilbourne, the clinical manager of oncology at RVMC, said her staff meets daily with physician offices to track and order drugs to keep them stocked.

When a local doctor diagnoses a patient with cancer and prescribes a course of chemotherapy, he or she immediately calls a hospital pharmacy, requesting that enough drug is ordered to complete the entire chemotherapy treatment.

"We look at what the patient needs for an entire course of the drug and then stock it for them," Kilbourne said.

The shortage has forced RVMC's pharmacists to handle all drugs with excruciating care when mixing and storing medicine.

"We don't waste a drop of drug," Kilbourne said.

RVMC works closely with Providence to be sure cancer patients at both hospitals have a full battery of cancer drugs, she said.

In other hospitals across the country, some cancer patients have been notified that there is a months-long wait for their drugs. In some cases, patients have been in the middle of a chemotherapy regimen and were told their medications have run out, the Associated Press reported.

"That's something we definitely want to avoid here in the Rogue Valley," RVMC spokesman Grant Walker said.

One cause of the shortage is the federal Food and Drug Administration tightening quality controls on drug manufacturers.

Kilbourne said the FDA rules have increased safety. However, when a drug manufacturer produces a batch of medication that fails the standards, it can take months before new drugs are made and available for shipping.

Shortages also can result when drug patents expire. Once a patent expires, a generic alternative is made available. This causes the price of the drug to drop so low that several manufacturers stop producing it. Problems arise when a manufacturer halts production, leaving few other sources of production for hospitals across the country.

Walker said federal legislation has been proposed that would require drug manufacturers to give the FDA notice before halting production of a drug. This could help hospitals and other drug manufacturers plan accordingly, he said.

Scranton said the shortage reaches far beyond cancer drugs.

"We have run out of multivitamins before," she said. "We have had to resort to alternative therapies, which can work. But sometimes certain drugs are the only option."

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or email cconrad@mailtribune.com.