Hailey Allen, a patient at Navicent Health, relies on vincristine for chemotherapy treatment. Her family is very thankful that Atrium Health was able to supply Navicent Health with additional viles when a national shortage of the drug posed a threat toward her treatment.

News | 10 months ago

Pediatric Cancer Patients Receive Vital Medication, Despite National Drug Shortage

A shortage of the chemotherapy drug vincristine, which is essential to the treatment of most pediatric cancers, has caused tremendous worry for families who rely on the drug for their child's treatment. But thanks to the collaboration between Atrium Health and Navicent Health, the vincristine shortage was navigated successfully and patients were able to get crucial treatment.

Imagine having to put all of your trust into a life-saving chemotherapy medication for your child’s cancer treatment. Now imagine that you just heard widespread news that this drug is in a national shortage following one pharmaceutical company’s decision to discontinue supply of the drug. Sounds scary, right? Well, that was the reality for a lot of pediatric and adult patients who use vincristine, the most commonly used chemotherapy drug for most cancers, including leukemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, neuroblastoma, small cell lung cancers – and more.

“Vincristine is one of the most important drugs we used in pediatrics because it’s used in all tumors,” says Javier Oesterheld, MD, medical director of the pediatric cancer program at Atrium Health’s Levine Children’s Hospital. “It’s impossible to care for most – if not all – of the children living with cancers without this drug.”

And while plenty of hospitals found themselves scrambling to ensure they were adequately supplied, Atrium Health and Macon, Ga.–based, Navicent Health remained calm and used this as an opportunity to support one another and ensure that no child missed a dose of medication.

“There Was No Warning”

Oncology teams and pharmacy staff found out about the shortage in October, quickly identifying this shortage as a serious emergency for patients in need. Fortunately, the teams at both Atrium Health and Navicent Health were comforted to know they had backup plans with their pharmacy in place.

As both care teams moved through the motions of preserving any vincristine they had, teammates at both hospital organizations mentally prioritized treatment for certain patients and made sure to prepare patients and their families for changes. “There were difficult conversations with parents,” said Sushmita Nair MD, FAAP, a pediatric oncologist at Navicent Health’s Beverly Knight Olson Children’s Hospital. “In case we had to save it [vincristine] for patients who needed it most.”

According to Kevin Isaacs in Atrium Health’s pharmacy services, drug shortages are fairly common. “There are about 200 drug shortages across the nation right now,” he said. “We have a team to monitor drug shortages and make sure we share supplies across the system. Generally, we know when shortages are coming because we hear of outages from representatives. But this one came out of left field,” he explained. “There was no warning.”

Atrium Health and Navicent Health Ensure No Child Misses a Dose

Thanks to the large footprint of Atrium Health and close monitoring of drug supply across the Carolinas, Atrium Health was able to send 20 vials of vincristine to Beverly Knight Olsen Hospital, to ensure that patients were tended to without missing a dose.

“Navicent Health is a part of us [Atrium Health] so we’re going to take care of them as we would for ourselves,” says Isaacs.

In 2018, Atrium Health and Navicent Health announced a strategic partnership to keep the physician community strong and enable patients to access advanced medical services throughout the Carolinas and Georgia.

“We work side-by-side to make sure patients are getting the right medicines at the right time,” said Dr. Oesterheld. “When it comes to moments like this, it’s fantastic being as large as we are so that we’re able to move supplies around.” 

Dr. Nair described that it was a great relief when Navicent Health received the vials from Atrium Health. “When one of our patients who needed medicine was able to receive the drug from Atrium, the mother broke down crying she was so grateful,” reflects Dr. Nair. “This partnership has benefited Navicent Health and our patients a lot. I feel like we can always reach out to each other in crises so that patient care isn’t affected.”

Continuing to Protect Patients and Their Families

While pharmacy teams all over the nation predict that drug shortages will continue to occur, they continue to take all of the necessary steps to ensure that patients have access to the world-class care and resources that they need and deserve. Atrium Health’s team is no exception.

“We have built a team that has set itself up to quickly identify shortages and alternatives and respond,” said Isaacs. “It speaks to the power of a working system. We are prepared for times like this.”

Thanks to the collaboration between Atrium Health and Navicent Health, the vincristine shortage was navigated successfully and patients are getting crucial treatment.

“You expect in America that your children are able to receive the care that they need. Unfortunately, it was a nationwide issue, so there was a shortage across every single state, every single hospital,” said Hailey Allen, mother of a pediatric cancer patient at Beverly Knight Olson Children’s Hospital.

“Thankfully, our daughter did not miss a dose and because of the partnership that Navicent Health has with Atrium Health…Not only do we get the benefit of having extra vials in a different state that can be shipped in, but also the additional expertise without the lapse in communication,” says Allen.

“I could not imagine trusting my daughter's life with anybody else.”


Update: The pharmaceutical company responsible for discontinuation of vincristine resumed production of the drug for patients in the United States beginning in early 2020.