A police officer who has suffered a back injury begins to rely on prescription pain killers to get through the day. When his doctor will no longer refill his prescription, he talks a nurse into supplying him with stolen pain pills. This scenario from the hit cable television drama Southland reflects an everyday reality – many healthcare workers are diverting pain medication. Since most medical facilities store controlled drugs in locked cabinets, one of the most unfortunate aspects of drug diversion by healthcare workers is that medication is often stolen directly from patients.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency regulates the distribution of controlled substances in hospitals and medical centers. The majority of healthcare workers adhere to the DEA’s regulations, but some divert and abuse prescription drugs to relieve stress, reduce anxiety or improve work performance. What begins as self-medication can lead to a cycle of drug abuse and addiction.
Other healthcare workers divert prescription drugs to supply friends or family members or sell them for a profit.
Healthcare Drug Abuse Horror Story #1
In Minnesota, nurse Sarah May Casareto was charged with diverting a painkiller that was intended for a patient about to undergo painful surgery for kidney stone removal. Casareto reportedly took most of the drug herself and then told the patient to “man up” when he complained about pain. During surgery, the patient screamed in agony as Caserto slurred her words and then fell asleep. The nurse has been charged with felony drug possession and is currently awaiting trial. Through her attorney she has claimed to be innocent of all charges, despite her refusal to take a drug test at the time of the incident.
HealthCare Drug Abuse Horror Story #2
A hospital technician in Colorado was sentenced to 30 years in prison for diverting patients’ drug-filled syringes and replacing them with her own used syringes that were infected with the deadly Hepatitis C virus. DNA testing found that at least 18 patients were infected with the same strain of Hepatitis as technician Kristen D. Parker, a former heroin addict, carries in her blood. In addition to spreading Hepatitis, Parker denied patients necessary pain medication by injecting them with water or a saline solution before surgery.
The DEA Office of Diversion Controls urges healthcare professionals to recognize the signs of drug abuse and diversion in co-workers. These signs include:
• Excessive absenteeism from work
• Frequent unexplained absences during the work shift, including frequent trips to the restroom or to storage areas.
• Volunteering for duties that require a proximity to drug storage areas.
• Missed deadlines and appointments.
• Erratic work performance, poor judgment, frequent mistakes.
• Difficulty concentrating, confusion, memory loss.
• Poor recordkeeping and drug shortages.
• Insistence on administrating drugs to patients.
• Complaints from co-workers about changes in personality and work habits.
In keeping with DEA regulations, most hospitals guard prescription drugs carefully. Hospital workers are usually required to use security code or fingerprint scanners to unlock drug storage cabinets. In response to reports of drug diversion by healthcare workers, many hospitals are looking for additional ways to secure drugs in operating rooms and are initiating random drug screenings to combat employee drug abuse and diversion.