Healthcare News & Insights

6 infectious disease outbreaks linked to hospital drug thefts: Patients at high risk

The widespread theft of drugs from hospitals reflects what experts say is a nationwide surge of prescription-drug abuse — and in many cases the culprits are the very people entrusted with caring for patients.  474451079

Now a report published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings says hospital workers who have stolen drugs by siphoning medication from IV bags, taking leftover pills meant for the trash and tampering with their patient’s syringes has led to six infectious disease outbreaks in U.S. hospitals since 2004.

According to the report, three nurses and three technicians who were tampering with patients’ injected controlled substances were implicated in spreading the infections.

The report documents more than 100 confirmed infections during the outbreaks. In addition, nearly 30,000 patients were exposed to bloodborne or bacterial pathogens. And the frequency of these events, the report said, is on the rise.

“The outbreaks we have identified illustrate some of the devastating and wide-reaching impacts of drug diversion in U.S. healthcare settings,” said the report’s co-authors Melissa Schaefer, MD, and Joseph Perz, Dr.PH, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Addiction comes to work

In four of the outbreaks, healthcare workers who were stealing drugs were infected with the Hepatitis C virus (HCV) and transmitted the disease to patients. Two other outbreaks resulted from drug-diverting healthcare professionals who infected patients with bloodstream bacterial infections.

One of the most disturbing outbreaks the authors profiled involved a traveling  HCV-infected radiology technician who was the cause of a large HCV outbreak which spanned several years, involved more than a dozen hospitals and impacted thousands of patients in eight states.

The technician admitted to being addicted to narcotics and stealing the drug fentanyl. He stole the drugs by tampering with the medication in a such a way that exposed patients to his blood.

“This multi-state outbreak and others have revealed multiple gaps in prevention, detection and response to drug diversion in U.S. healthcare facilities, Dr. Schaefer and Dr. Perz said in the report. System-wide improvements are needed to secure medication and protect patients.

Drug security measures you can take

Here are some safeguards the authors recommend hospitals have in place to shore-up drug-handling protocols:

  • Keep an eye on high-risk areas. In three of the outbreaks, technicians were able to access syringes that were prepared and left unlocked in an operating room in anticipation of a patient’s procedure. They were able to remove the syringes and replace them with decoy syringes filled with another clear solution such as saline or water.
  • Use tamper-resistant and tamper-evident syringes.
  • Use an automated dispensing cabinet with a security code that can control and track drug distribution.
  • Conduct regular audits of the pharmacy to verify the identity or concentration of wasted or unused drugs that are returned or discarded.
  • Prepare medications as close as possible to the time of administration.
  • Properly label pre-drawn syringes to include the patient’s name, and
  • Conduct a routine review of access records from the automated medication dispensing system. This protocol helped identify a nurse who had an access rate several times greater than that of other staff members.

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