Hospitals, clinics, and other health care settings — and those who staff them — aren’t immune to the ravages of the opioid crisis and its related abuse of prescription and illicit drugs. For patients, their caregivers’ addictions can have serious consequences, including a less-discussed nightmare: diversions of their drugs.
Lauren Lollini, a psychotherapist and a patient-safety advocate, has penned a powerful and scary Op-Ed for Stat, a health and medical news site. She describes how, while undergoing a relatively routine kidney stone removal at a respected Denver hospital, she was infected with hepatitis C — a draining and chronic liver disease that is blood-borne and is often associated with drug abusers. Lollini, however, had been healthy and did not use drugs. So, how did she get so sick? As she explained:
“[An investigation by the] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showed that I and at least 18 others had been infected with hepatitis C by Kristen Parker, a technician at Rose Medical Center who had tested positive for the disease before she was hired. She stole patients’ fentanyl-filled syringes off medication trays, injected herself with the painkiller, then refilled the syringes with saline. In the summer of 2009 — about three months after I learned I had hepatitis C — Parker was arrested in one of the biggest hospital drug diversion incidents to date. In 2010, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison.”
That case, sadly, was not unique. The CDC has detailed at least a half dozen cases since — and there may have been more, smaller incidents that failed to attract regulatory or public attention, Lollini reported:
“Ten years ago, I had never heard of drug diversion. Today I know that 10% or more of hospital staff members have addiction issues. While not all divert drugs at some point in their careers, drug diversion is happening at hospitals across the country … Yet the issue is barely discussed and too quickly forgotten. In a Porter Research survey of health industry workers, 90% of respondents said that diversion definitely occurs, though 65% said that most of it goes undetected. A surprising 22% said their health care facility lacked a drug diversion prevention program. And among facilities that have programs in place, like Rose Medical Center, policies are not consistently enforced or are minimal. For many health systems, the subject of drug diversion by staff members is taboo and swept under the rug. There’s a stigma to being associated with drug diversion — not to mention fines, potential legal ramifications, and a public relations nightmare.”
Through the organization she helped to found, she advocates for institutions to fess up, to help their addicted staff and the public. If hospitals, clinics, and other caregiving sites can’t recognize the drug problem of their own people, they also might not take the steps they must, she says, to safeguard powerful medications, securing them, monitoring their dispensing, and ensuring improper conduct doesn’t occur. They also must stop passing around staff with known drug problems, she says.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the havoc that can be wreaked on them and their loved ones by dangerous drugs. The terrible toll and tentacles of the opioid crisis and the abuse of prescription and illicit drugs reach into too many and unacceptable places in too many Americans’ lives, abetted by doctors, nurses, hospitals, insurers, and, of course, Big Pharma. Our health care system and the people in it may be held up by many as a beacon of hope and care. But it also is factual and true that it is fraught with It is with medical error, preventable hospital acquired illnesses and deaths, and misdiagnoses.
We did not take enough steps in the last decade to halt the opioid crisis and drug abuse — and we need to do so in this decade. Drug diversion may be uncommon, but it needs to be stopped. Too many lives are being wrecked and lost with awful consequences likely for a generation.