A review by USA Today says over 100,000 health care workers are abusing or dependent on prescription drugs every year. Doctors, nurses, medical technicians, and aides all have important jobs. The safety of hundreds of thousands of people is in their hands at any given moment. What if those hands operating on you were shaky because they hadn’t gotten their fix? Or what if the anesthesiologist putting you to sleep was obsessively thinking about the next time she could get high? What if you weren’t getting the pain medication you needed for a surgery, but you were getting the unexpected surprise of Hepatitis C? While these scenarios may seem unlikely, each and every one has happened.
In the USA Today article and video, multiple health care professionals were interviewed about their drug use and abuse. Each of the above scenarios was detailed in those interviews. These are real nightmares that happened to real people. And with the prevalence of drug abuse in the medical field, the next victim could be you.
The problem is endemic to health care. Where there are people in charge of dispersing drugs, there will be drug diversion, which is the term for health care workers who steal prescription drugs from work, often at the expense of patients who desperately need that medication. The scariest part about drug diversion and healthcare workers’ addiction is that it’s rarely discovered. All of those interviewed by USA Today reported that it was so easy to divert drugs, and that they never got caught.
In an industry already vulnerable to human error which we can see in the number of preventable medical mistakes that occur each year (which our blog alone details over 20 stories of preventable medical mistakes), drug use and abuse are putting an unnecessary risk on patients.
Not only are patients at risk and healthcare workers unlikely to get caught, they are also unlikely to face any kind of punishment for their crimes. Part of the problem is the lack of report measures available. In most states, there is no policy for mandatory drug screening for health care employees, and there is no policy for reporting drug use/abuse of staffers. Hospitals may catch an employee abusing drugs, fire them, and think they’re finished with that person. But what they’re actually doing is turning them loose without accountability. If that person goes to another hospital or health care office, then the new potential employer has no way to know about their history of drug abuse.
Drug use and abuse is a serious concern for anyone affected. But doctors, nurses, medical technicians, and aides hold lives in their hands constantly. If they are operating impaired even one moment in their die, they have the potential to cause devastating harm. Though the solution to this problem is not easy, as states have tried various approaches to eliminate drug diversion and addiction in health care professionals, it is an issue that must be addressed for the safety of us all, including those addicted.