The news from Colorado that a drug-addicted surgery technician had exposed thousands of patients to the Hepatitis-C virus raises questions about the institutions’ procedures for protecting patients.
According to news accounts, the surgery tech, Kristen Parker, swapped her dirty syringes, filled with saline, for clean ones filled with Fentanyl, in operating rooms at Rose Medical Center in Denver and Audubon Ambulatory Surgery Center in Colorado Springs. That way she could steal Fentanyl, a powerful morphine-based drug that is used for surgical anesthesia, and inject it into herself to feed her drug habit. Ms. Parker has just been charged in a federal criminal complaint.
The institutions are sending certified letters to 4,700 patients at Rose and 1,000 at Audubon advising them to get tested for Hepatitis-C. That’s because Ms. Parker tested positive for Hepatitis-C, and several patients already have tested positive.
Hepatitis-C is a virus that causes chronic liver infection in about 75 to 85 of every 100 persons who get an acute infection. A few of those who get chronic infection go on to develop cirrhosis or liver cancer. There is no known cure for Hepatitis-C infection.
Parker worked at Rose from October 21, 2008 until April 2009. She resigned on April 20 from Rose, but the hospital refused to accept her resignation and instead fired her.
She went to work for Audubon shortly after being fired from Rose. She worked there from May 4 until Monday, said Dr. J. Michael Hall, Audubon’s medical director.
Hall said certified letters are being sent to all patients who had outpatient surgery at the center’s Circle Drive and Union Boulevard location May 4-July 1 advising them they may have been exposed and with instructions on what to do.
Surgical technicians are not licensed health care providers. Yet because their job involves preparing operating rooms for surgery, they have access to powerful drugs, so it’s foreseeable the job can attract addicts. A similar incident occurred in Washington, D.C., a few years ago, where a tech at a major hospital was caught swapping out syringes filled with powerful pain reliever drugs for plain salt water so that he could inject himself with the narcotic drugs.
According to the Gazette:
Prior to being hired at Rose, she [Ms. Parker] submitted to a pre-employment blood test which tested positive for hepatitis C. She was allowed to start work but hospital officials counseled her about the disease and exposure possibilities.
Rose placed her on administrative leave following an incident in which a co-worker was pricked by a needle in Parker’s pocket on March 23, 2009.
According to the affidavit, Parker quickly disposed of the needle and denied any use of narcotics. She was allowed to return to work after a drug screening test came back negative.
The hospital placed her on administrative leave again after a co-worker reported seeing Parker in an operating room to which she was not assigned. She was tested again for drugs and this time the results were positive for Fentanyl.
The questions yet to be answered include:
1. Why hire someone positive for a contagious disease like Hepatitis-C and give them access to needles which can spread the disease?
2. Why not fire her the first time she was found with a needle?
3. Why did the second institution hire her so quickly after she was fired by the first? Were references checked? Shouldn’t she have been required to advise the surgery center who her most recent employer had been?
4. Should there be a central data bank so that health care employers can find out about fired or disciplined employees, so they cannot easily travel from job to job? There is such a data bank for licensed health care workers, but perhaps it should apply to unlicensed ones as well.