Healthcare News & Insights

Workers with drug addictions: How to respond

Prescription drug abuse is on the rise. The growing problem affects hospitals – and not just because they’re treating more people who overdose on medications. Hospital workers who struggle with addiction often steal drugs intended for patients, and the lengths they go to cover it up can create dangerous situations. 

ThinkstockPhotos-469338588According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), prescription drug addiction has become an epidemic. Each day, 44 people in the U.S. die due to overdosing on prescription painkillers.

And drug abuse is affecting the safety of all patients in hospitals.

In a recent case described on the website for Utah media outlet KSL Broadcasting, a former nurse employed at McKay-Dee Hospital was accused of stealing morphine in a “drug diversion” scheme that put up to 4,800 patients at risk for contracting hepatitis C.

(“Drug diversion” is when a healthcare worker takes drugs meant for patients and uses them for illicit purposes.)

The situation came to light after a patient unexpectedly tested positive for the illness. The former nurse was then tested, and she also had hepatitis C.

While the hospital hasn’t released many specifics, citing privacy concerns, it’s suspected the nurse used the needles on herself, refilled them with another solution and replaced them to be used on patients afterward.

This isn’t the only high-profile case where drug diversion put many patients at risk. In 2013, David Kwiatkowski, a traveling hospital technician, was sentenced to 39 years in prison for infecting dozens of patients in four different states with hepatitis C. Kwiatkowski used painkillers on himself and refilled the used syringes with saline.

Sneaky problem

Drug diversion isn’t always so apparent, however. A nurse could be slipping one of each patient’s pills in her pocket, or a pharmacist may forge prescriptions using the name of one of your providers.

You don’t want to suspect your people of doing anything so blatant to put patients in jeopardy, but it happens more often than you’d think.

While there aren’t reliable statistics about how often drug diversion happens (since it’s so tough to detect), even the most vigilant hospitals must deal with staff members who steal drugs to feed their addictions or sell on the streets.

Identifying drug diversion

The CDC offers some steps hospitals can follow to minimize the effects of drug diversion, including:

  • Have clear policies in place to prevent, detect and properly report diversion
  • Create a strategy to monitor drug transactions/drug supply for signs of diversion
  • Give prompt attention to any behavior that looks suspicious when auditing drug transactions
  • Work closely with public health and regulatory officials once diversion is suspected, and
  • Regularly train staff on how to identify drug diversion and how to handle medications correctly.

This last point is crucial. Your clinical staffers are on the front lines, so they’d be the ones most likely to notice if medications are disappearing faster than they should – or if one of their co-workers is exhibiting classic behavior patterns associated with addiction.

If a drug diversion situation does arise in your facility, the first step is to report all relevant information to the appropriate authorities.

While you’re free to take internal disciplinary actions against the employee, the person’s behavior may have created a public health risk – so it may also be necessary to reach out to public health authorities, such as the CDC, to find out if you’ll need to notify patients about the issue.

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