Communication gaps make hospital drug theft easier

The case of a surgical tech who stole drugs in five different hospitals demonstrates the inter-institutional communication gaps that plague hospitals and health agencies, according to The Denver Post.

Rocky Allen was court-martialed for fentanyl theft almost five years ago while working as a surgical tech for the Navy, according to the article. Since then, multiple hospitals have fired Allen for drug theft. But communication between providers was so poor it was only earlier this month that hospitals where he worked have begun to offer HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C testing to patients he may have infected by switching syringes.

Part of the problem, the report states, is that the Drug Enforcement Administration requires that hospitals report drug theft but not the names of those involved. Similarly, hospitals are under no obligation to notify law enforcement, according to the article. There is no regulatory framework for surgical techs at the federal level or in the majority of states, the Post reports.

This lack of communication can leave potential "serial infectors" free to move from hospital to hospital without leaders being aware until the problem reaches epidemic proportions. For example, in late 2012, a federal grand jury indicted David M. Kwiatkowski for causing an outbreak of hepatitis C involving 30 patients at Exeter Hospital in New Hampshire. He is also accused of possibly exposing hundreds of patients to hep C at 18 hospitals in seven other states. 

Experts said Kwiatkowski's case should be a wakeup call for a national misconduct database for healthcare workers, but such a database has yet to materialize. More than 100,000 medical professionals abuse or are addicted to prescription drugs, with high-stress hospital environments both making workers vulnerable to new addictions and exacerbating new ones.

Moreover, many federal regulations simply aren't practical. While the law requires narcotics to be secured or closely guarded, theft is easy for those who really want to, Holly Falcon, vice president of the Association of Surgical Technologists, told the Post. For example,she said "there are times when the narcotic can be left out on top of the anesthesia cart. Anesthesiologists are supposed to keep them in their possession, but sometimes they set them up and then they leave the room. During this time, the surgical tech is usually in the room alone."

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