EMS Insider, News

Drug Theft on the Rise

In a story reported by the Deseret News of Salt Lake City, Utah, the discovery that up to 4,800 patients at McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden may have been exposed to hepatitis C was traced back to a former nurse who was stealing morphine.

In the past 10 years, at least 84 nurses, pharmacists or pharmacy technicians have been disciplined by Utah’s Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing for stealing medications from their employers. A nationwide wave of prescription drug abuse is forcing health officials to reckon with the consequences of addiction entering the workplace. When people steal pharmaceutical drugs—usually powerful painkillers like oxycodone or fentanyl—it’s called “drug diversion,” and drug diversion cases involving healthcare workers are occurring more and more, according to John Eddington, an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Salt Lake City.

Several high profile cases in past years have accelerated discussion about whether more can be done. In 2009, a Denver hospital technician infected at least 18 patients with hepatitis C by swapping syringes of pain medication with used ones containing saline. After that case, Colorado health officials urged hospitals to work more closely with the public health officials so they could use their own data to look for any signs of disease transmission. In Minnesota, after a series of widely publicized cases of healthcare workers stealing controlled substances, a coalition of health officials and hospitals released new guidelines for investigating prescription drug theft, including the recommendation that hospitals create diversion teams and engage local law enforcement as early as possible.

Questions remain about whether healthcare facilities have an obligation to inform patients that their medication—or even the quality of the care they received—may have been affected by an employee diverting drugs. The CDC recommends that if a healthcare provider is found to be diverting medications, the patients should be informed and tested for communicable diseases.