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.”

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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.