The United States needs a much stronger system for ensuring that the necessary pharmaceuticals and related services are available for response to acts of terrorism and other emergencies, according to participants in a landmark Executive Session on Emergency Preparedness and the Pharmaceutical Supply Chain, held November 9 in Bethesda, Maryland. The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) convened the session to assess the strengths and vulnerabilities of the pharmaceutical supply chain in responding to national emergencies. The summary of the Executive Session, which is a useful primer on the full dimensions of the issue, is available online at www.ashp.org.

Significant weaknesses of the response system that were identified centered around the need for greater overall coordination of federal, state, and local emergency planning and response. Specifically, meeting attendees spotlighted the need for:

* Better coordination among federal and local agencies and organizations charged with disaster-response responsibilities. For example, it is vital for local officials to have details on the contents and deployment of the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile.

* Better inclusion of pharmacists in the emergency-preparedness planning process to ensure that drugs are properly packaged, labeled, and accompanied by written product information, and that pharmacists and other health care professionals are available to take patient medical histories, provide counsel, and answer questions.

* A system in which the services of volunteer physicians, pharmacists, and other health professionals can be easily deployed when needed.

``Drug products are central to every aspect of emergency planning,'' said Henri R. Manasse, Jr., Ph.D., Sc.D., ASHP Executive Vice President and Chief Executive Officer, ``and pharmacists must be involved in ensuring that emergency plans detail how to disseminate the right medication to the right patient.''

Together, the more than 35 participants reviewed the readiness of the pharmaceutical supply chain and how it would function within federal, state, and local communities' emergency plans. It was the first such meeting that brought together representatives from the full spectrum of pharmaceutical supply, including drug manufacturers, hospitals, pharmacists, and federal emergency-preparedness planners.

``Hospitals are likely to be on the front-line of a disaster, whether natural or manmade,'' said Manasse. ``We felt it was important to create a dialog between those who are planning emergency responses and those who would be caring for patients and supplying the medications and equipment.''

Meeting participants applauded efforts by emergency response teams and health care professionals, particularly physicians and pharmacists, who assisted in rescue and triage efforts in New York City and the Washington, D.C. area on September 11. They also praised hospital pharmacists and drug distributors and manufacturers for their crisis management skills in accommodating unusual and urgent needs for medications.

The session also explored other issues such as collaboration between the private and public sector, education and information sharing, federal authority, as well as legislative and regulatory activities.

A follow up meeting is planned for early 2002. At that time, specific steps will be outlined for addressing system vulnerabilities.

ASHP is the 31,000-member national professional association that represents pharmacists who practice in hospitals, health maintenance organizations, long-term care facilities, home care, and other components of health care systems. ASHP believes that the mission of pharmacists is to help people make the best use of medicines. Assisting pharmacists in fulfilling this mission is ASHP's primary objective. The Society has publishing and educational programs designed to help members improve their delivery of pharmaceutical care, and it is the national accrediting organization for pharmacy residency and pharmacy technician training programs.