Drug Diversion Widespread in Healthcare Facilities

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The Drug Enforcement Administration recently completed another National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, collecting over 468 tons of unused or expired medications. The idea is to get risky drugs – particularly opioids – out of medicine cabinets before they wind up on the streets.

“The current opioid crisis continues to take too many lives, and many people get their first pills to abuse from the home medicine cabinet,” said DEA New Jersey Special Agent in Charge Susan Gibson.

But the DEA’s Take Back program overlooks a growing problem in the healthcare industry: Opioid medications are increasingly being stolen before they even reach home medicine cabinets.

According to a new report by the healthcare analytics firm Protenus, over 47 million doses of medication were stolen in 2018 by doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other healthcare workers, an increase of 126% from the year before. Opioids were involved in 94% of the incidents, with oxycodone, hydrocodone and fentanyl the most common drugs stolen.

“For both doctors and nurses, the high stress of the profession, long shifts, fatigue, physical and emotional pain, along with easy access to controlled substances, contribute to why they might divert medications,” the report found.

“Drug diversion poses a great deal of harm to patients because it puts them at risk of being treated by care providers working under the influence of controlled substances as well as receiving the incorrect amount or type of medications.”


Among the incidents cited in the report are a Texas nurse stealing opioid medication from elderly patients and a Maryland pharmacist filling bogus opioid prescriptions in return for sexual favors. According to Protenus, the average amount of time it took to discover a case of healthcare drug diversion was 22 months, giving diverters plenty of time to continue their thefts and cover their tracks.

To combat in-house drug diversion, Protenus recommends that hospitals, pharmacies, nursing homes and other healthcare providers establish drug monitoring programs – similar to those used for patients – and educate their employees about detecting and preventing diversion.

“Drug diversion occurs in virtually every hospital and health system in America, but many are in denial that it is happening in their own organization,” said Russ Nix, Director of Drug Diversion Prevention at MedStar Health. “Very few resources exist today on how to identify and combat drug diversion, and what’s out there is siloed.”

Nix belongs to the advisory board of Healthcare Diversion Network, a new non-profit that has an online portal where healthcare employees can report drug thefts anonymously. The goal is to collect data and raise awareness about drug diversion in healthcare facilities. 

I was really shocked when we put our initial database together at how many of those thefts were out of hospitals.
— Tom Knight, Healthcare Diversion Network

“I think thefts out of home medicine cabinets happen, but I also know that thefts out of healthcare systems and hospitals happen,” said Tom Knight, Chairman of the Healthcare Diversion Network. “Many of those thefts are for self-use, where the person stealing is going to consume them themselves. But sadly, many of those thefts are where the person is planning to distribute them, typically for profit on the street illegally.

“I was really shocked when we put our initial database together at how many of those thefts were out of hospitals. There are numerous cases where people working in hospitals stole hundreds of thousands of doses that were sold on the street for years before they were eventually caught.”

Knight says about 10 percent of all healthcare workers are stealing opioids and other controlled substances. He told PNN there is no good data to indicate how much of the stolen medication sold on the street comes from medicine cabinets and how much comes from healthcare facilities or the drug distribution system.

“Pretty much anywhere they exist they’re being stolen. We’re trying to raise the visibility, particularly on the part of the healthcare facilities,” he said.

Reducing Supply of Opioids Will Not Stop Drug Diversion

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

Drug diversion is a massive problem. It plagues the entire drug supply chain, from manufacturer through wholesaler and distributor, to drug stores and dispensaries, all the way to consumers. It is particularly important for opioid pain medications because of the ongoing opioid crisis.

It is well established that the non-medical use of pharmaceutical drugs is an increasing public health concern. Most pharmaceutical drugs used non-medically are obtained from family and friends. There is little to no organized crime involved. And importantly, doctor shopping is rare.

An under-appreciated issue here is scale. According to the DEA, less than 1 percent of legally prescribed opioids are diverted. The sharing or selling of individual prescription pills is small compared to the impact of diversion higher up in the supply chain. For instance, Effingham Health systems just agreed to pay a $4.1 million settlement as a result of a DEA investigation into reports that tens of thousands of oxycodone tablets were believed to have been diverted for four years.

Similar reports about large-scale diversion abound. The Associated Press reported incidents of diversion at about 1,200 VA facilities rose from 272 in 2009 to 2,926 in 2015.

And in 2013 Walgreens was charged $80 million for poor record-keeping and dispensing violations that let millions of doses of controlled substances to enter the black market.

In 2007, the Drug Enforcement Administration estimated that prescription drug diversion in the United States was a $25 billion-a-year industry. About one of every four thefts of methadone and OxyContin were attributed by the DEA to employee pilferage at pharmacies, hospitals and other healthcare facilities.


More recently, a 2017 survey by Porter Research, 96 percent of healthcare workers said drug diversion occurs frequently in healthcare. And 65 percent believe most diversion goes undetected.

Pill mills are even worse. In the book “American Pain,” journalist John Temple describes the impact of Florida pill mills on the east coast a decade ago.

“Florida pumped millions upon millions of doses of those narcotics—oxycodone, mostly—northward, not through a major criminal organization like the cartels of Mexico, but via thousands of individuals who streamed up and down Interstate 75 or flew from Tri-Sate Airport in Huntington, West Virginia, to Miami International, on a flight nicknamed the Oxy Express,” Temple wrote.

And none of this is remotely new. In the book “Dark Paradise,” historian David Courtwright explains: “Diversion from maintenance programs posed a real danger, given that perhaps half of all licitly manufactured barbiturates and amphetamines ended up on the black market.”

So the claim by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that "It’s a common sense idea: the more a drug is diverted, the more its production should be limited” is both simplistic and misguided.

Sessions is assuming that limiting production will reduce diversion. But economic theory suggests the opposite may be true. Reducing supply leads to scarcity, which generally increases value. This in turn may create stronger incentives to divert more opioids into the black market.

Moreover, there is no evidence that people who divert medication are aware of and responding to DEA production quotas. Instead, the consensus is that people divert what they need and think they can get away with. In other words, diversion is an exercise in what economists call the “Tragedy of the Commons,” in which individuals each use a collective resource for their own benefit without regard for the effects on others.

And Sessions’ idea implies that reducing production won’t have any effect on medical practice. But there is an abundance of evidence to the contrary. There is an ongoing shortage of injectable opioids at hospitals around the country. And despite claims to the contrary, opioid analgesics cannot always be replaced or substituted with other pain relievers.

Thus, more intelligent and nuanced approaches are needed. For instance, the NIH is sponsoring research to use advanced data analytics to detect drug theft and diversion in hospitals. Similar efforts at wholesalers, distributors, pharmacies and dispensaries are worth considering.

So while diversion is a major problem, it is neither new nor limited to individual consumers with prescriptions for opioids or other medications that have a street value or abuse potential. The seemingly obvious response of reducing supply could easily backfire. Instead, securing the entire supply chain, from manufacturer through distributor to point-of-sale to consumers, is a vital step in making sure that only the intended recipients of pharmaceutical drugs have access to them.

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.