My Turn: Drug diversion isn’t a regional problem

Last modified: Friday, June 12, 2015
I encourage citizens and especially public health and government leaders to join us to do all we can to prevent drug diversion in all health care facilities in the United States. Drug diversion, any criminal act involving a prescription drug, has affected patients throughout the country. It is not just a New Hampshire problem. But New Hampshire is in the position to continue to lead much-needed changes.

It was reported May 27 that traveling nurse Kerry Bridges, who worked in the emergency department of Concord Hospital until May 1, stole narcotics and tried to conceal this theft by falsifying records. All of the right actions have been taken. The nurse has been suspended, there is an investigation under way, and the nursing board heard this case and suspended the nurse’s privileges.

Still, there are many burning questions. How was this nurse, who was accused of diverting drugs last year when she worked in Maine, allowed to continue to work? From what we have learned about this case, which is continuing to unfold, it appears it was easy for this nurse to transition to work in New Hampshire. She was also granted a new license on May 13 to practice in Massachusetts.

How can this be?

As I said, this is not just a New Hampshire or a New England problem. Although some members of the media and others, as a continued reaction to the horrible outbreak at Exeter Hospital in 2011, an outbreak that was traced to many other states, sometimes like to present it that way. Countless patients and their families and communities were affected by the behavior and actions, unstopped by any of these institutions, of one addicted medical technician.

Drug diversion among health care workers is a national problem. And it may be the most enormous elephant in the room in health care. According to reporter Peter Eisler, writing in USA Today in April 2013, “100,000 doctors, nurses, medical technicians are abusing or dependent on prescription drugs in a given year, putting patients at risk.”

At a recent drug diversion prevention meeting sponsored by the New Jersey Department of Health at Rutgers University, Mitch G. Sobel, director of pharmacy services at the St. Joseph’s Healthcare System in Paterson, N.J., said the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs Prescription Monitoring Program estimated this number at 370,000.

Experts tell us it isn’t long, for many drug addicts, before their addiction compels them to inject drugs. When covert injecting occurs in a health care setting, many aspects of the injection process are violated. Any time an injection is given improperly, there is a risk that one patient or more will be infected with a life-threatening bloodborne illness, including hepatitis C and HIV. There is also the impact on the care of the patient who may remain in unnecessary pain during his or her recovery process.

New Hampshire made a great start last year, when Gov. Hassan signed in to law the medical technician registry and the drug-free workplace laws. The New Hampshire Hospital Association and HONOReform, among many other groups and individuals, were proud to be included in these efforts. We thank the hard-working state lawmakers who helped lead work on these new and necessary laws.

Still, if we are truly going to aim to prevent diversion of drugs in health care settings, there is much more work that needs to be done, both at the health care systems level and in state and federal government.

There is a current discussion among federal leaders and others on assembling a meeting in New England to have a full conversation on drug diversion prevention, and outline and recommend next steps. It is the right thing to do, not only for patients throughout the country but for the addicted health care workers who need and deserve protocols and regulations that prevent drug diversion.

We must intervene. To do this work adequately and fully, we need a full group of committed leaders, all of whom are willing, finally, to look squarely at the problem and do something about it.

(Steve Langan serves as executive director of HONOReform.)