As the US reels from a myriad of crises and essential product scarcities, another serious and potentially deadly shortage looms on the horizon.
The nation’s hospitals are beginning to run low on contrast dye that is injected into patients undergoing essential and life-saving scans (X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs).
The fluid, which makes the routine but potentially life-saving scans readable, helps doctors identify clots in the heart and brain. The shortage is expected to last until at least June 30, the American Hospital Association (AHA) says.
…GE Healthcare is the main U.S. supplier of contrast fluid, called Omnipaque.
The AHA has asked the company for more information on the shortage, saying hospitals rely on a consistent supply to diagnose and treat a wide range of patients, including those with life-threatening conditions.
“It is too easy for us to take for granted the readily available supply of something that is so important to our patients and our radiologic practices until it’s gone,” Dr. Thomas Grist said in a news release from the Radiological Society of North America.
The shortage in the dye is directly tied to China’s “zero covid” policies. Shanghai’s shutdown halted production in the facility that generates the bulk of the US Supply. The crisis could last through the summer.
GE’s Shanghai plant is a major supplier of the dye for U.S. health systems. Around 50 percent of U.S. hospitals and imaging centers likely use GE’s product, according to Nancy Foster, vice president of quality and patient safety policy at the American Hospital Association, though she added that the exact portion is hard to pin down.
“Most hospitals, for a product like this, would keep on hand maybe a couple weeks of supply,” Foster said. “But this shortage has been going on for a couple weeks now.”
The shortage is the result of a strict lockdown imposed on Shanghai on March 27 as part of China’s “zero-Covid” strategy. It caused the GE plant there to be shuttered for several weeks, though a spokesperson for GE Healthcare said in a statement that the plant has begun to reopen and is “working to return to full capacity as local authorities allow.”
The spokesperson added that GE is accelerating deliveries by shipping by air, instead of by boat, from both its Shanghai plant as well as a plant in Cork, Ireland, to address the U.S. supply issues.
But even so, health systems do not anticipate immediate relief. The shortage could last into the summer, forcing medical providers to postpone lower-priority imaging as they ration their stockpiles.
The timing of this shortage is also quite bad. Many people have put off medical visits and treatments for chronic health issues during the pandemic. The scans would be part of the medical regimen needed for diagnosis.
The shortage is nationwide, but as a state with one of the highest rates of cancer and vascular disease, patients in Louisiana are feeling it acutely. And with a large number of residents who put off procedures during the pandemic, health experts worry the shortage could lead to more missed diagnoses, just as patients are trying to catch up on scans.
“The shortage couldn’t have come at a worse time,” said Dr. Bradley Spieler, professor and vice chair of radiology at LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine.
Meanwhile, American medical societies have been providing guidance to hospitals on ways to conserve the dye.
“We give IV contrast in the patient’s veins to enhance a specific organ of interest what we’re looking at. It could be looking for a bleeding inside the body or a stroke or infection, or in my case, we look for a blockage of arteries of the heart,” said Dr. Sharath Subramanian, a cardiologist at CentraCare. “To look for artery blockages, the best way to do this is contrast, and there’s no alternative for that.”
A spokesperson for the Minnesota Hospital Association said in part, the shortage is “presenting a challenge for our hospital and health systems, and they are working hard, like with any other pharmaceutical shortage, to put in plans to serve their patients.”
Subramanian said due to the global shortage of the dye, his hospital has been exploring other options, such as conducting a different type of scan, conducting a scan without using the dye or using less of the dye.
Another valuable lesson from this development would be making sure we have trusted, local supplies of life-essential goods.
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