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Addiction Grips Hospitals from the Inside Out

A Michigan hospital recently came under fire after several of its medical professionals were caught stealing and using narcotic medications that were meant for patients – but this isn’t a solitary incident. In fact, an alarming number of medical professionals have been caught diverting and abusing prescription drugs in hospitals around the country.

Addiction in the Medical Profession

Eight instances of stolen drugs at the University of Michigan Health System, located in Ann Arbor, were reported within the first seven months of 2014. Considering that no drugs were reported stolen in 2011 and only two instances of theft were reported in 2011, diversion among hospital employees has become a serious problem.

To top it off, between May 2011 and January 2012, a University of Michigan Health System staff employee managed to steal more than 16,000 hydrocodone pills. Officials were never able to track down the culprit, but believe it was a former employee of the housekeeping staff.

Last December, a nurse and doctor at the Michigan facility both overdosed on pain medication that was originally prescribed for hospital patients. The nurse, 29-year-old Carla DelVecchio, died, while 32-year-old doctor Timothy Sutton recovered, but was charged with a crime and lost his job.

Around the Nation

In August 2012, Colorado dentist Dr. Stephen Stein admitted to diverting patient prescriptions for Vicodin and Vicoprofen. Stein copped to writing the prescriptions for his own use, in addition to reusing needles on patients.

Last December, David Kwiatkowski, an ex-itinerant hospital technician in New Hampshire, was sentenced to 39 years in prison after causing a Hepatitis C outbreak caused by his drug diverting. Kwiatkowski was caught injecting himself with patients’ pain medicine and refilling the syringes with saline. This diversion scheme left an astounding 46 people infected with Hepatitis C and 8,000 more requiring hepatitis tests across eight states.

The Mask of Professionalism

I was absolutely impaired, using narcotics while working…and no one ever noticed.-Anika BertrandMany health practitioners manage to divert and abuse narcotic medications for years without getting caught. Because no state has universal drug testing requirements, hospitals and other facilities often don’t implement testing on their own.

Houston-based nurse anesthetist Anika Bertrand is but one example out of the thousands of medical professionals working under the influence. “I was absolutely impaired, using narcotics while working…and no one ever noticed,” she said. “Did I make mistakes? I don’t know, and that’s the scary part. I’m not aware of any, but I certainly would not say I was immune to that.”

The Shocking Truth

Budgetary restraints and department cuts have prevented many medical facilities from installing the high-tech equipment needed to conduct employee surveillance. However, the facilities across the country that have taken steps to implement video surveillance systems have collectively been shocked at what they have found.

Kimberly New, former hospital manager of controlled substance surveillance for the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville, said that she “was catching at least one health care provider every month stealing medication.”

Punishing Addicted Medical Practitioners

For hospital workers caught stealing medication and convicted of a drug felony or misdemeanor, they are reported to the Office of the Inspector General and put on an “exclusion” list that prohibits them from working at any facility participating in Medicare or Medicaid programs.

Many states offer special rehab programs for health care practitioners. These programs aim to reach practitioners before their addictions reach the point of diverting and stealing narcotic medications.

If medical professionals voluntarily enroll and complete a multi-year treatment agreement, most will not be subject to further disciplinary action and can typically keep practicing under supervision afterwards.

Learn more about the epidemic of prescription drug abuse.

Photo Source: istock