Hospital workers who abuse drugs put patients at risk

Unfortunately, many of the health-care professionals whom we assume to be on the frontlines of the battle against prescription drug abuse have themselves succumbed to the siren song of illicit "self-medication." Abuse of drugs by health-care workers poses dangers for hospital patients who may become the victims of medical malpractice resulting from an impaired doctor, nurse or technician not concentrating properly on the job.

Recently, USA Today published a disturbing article indicating that more than 100,000 doctors, nurses and medical technicians may be hooked on and/or abusing prescription meds. According to the article, two of the most abused narcotics are oxycodone and fentanyl. One medical worker who was interviewed admitted to stealing and taking drugs she was supposed to be giving to surgical patients. She also candidly admitted to having performed work at a hospital while drug-impaired.

The danger posed to patients in the District of Columbia and elsewhere by drug-abusing hospital workers is perhaps best illustrated by the case of a New Hampshire health-care worker who, according to CNN, was recently sentenced to 39 years in prison after causing a multistate outbreak of hepatitis C. The man stole syringes of fentanyl from patients scheduled for surgery. He injected himself with the syringes which he then refilled with saline. Instead of being given fentanyl, patients sustained personal injury by being injected with saline tainted by infected blood!

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the prevalence rates of substance use and abuse among health-care professionals resembles that of the general population although health-care workers tend to have higher rates of abusing benzodiazepines and opiates. Specialties such as anesthesia, emergency medicine and psychiatry have higher rates of drug abuse than other health-care fields, due, it is suggested, to job stress and easy access to drugs.

Untold numbers of people suffer preventable harm from medical errors because their health-care providers had drug abuse problems. The Drug Enforcement Administration finds that physicians or nurses who are abusing prescription drugs can make mistakes and bad decisions due to inattention, poor judgment, memory loss and confusion.

In theory, disciplinary action can be taken against physicians who abuse alcohol or drugs. Unfortunately, Public Citizen finds that the District of Columbia ranks as one of the lowest for disciplinary action taken against physicians coming in at 50th place between 2009 and 2011. By comparison, Maryland was ranked 27th while Virginia was ranked 22nd.

Better self-policing by health-care workers could help

The DEA says that the medical profession could better police itself if health-care workers would report to hospital administrators the following tell-tale signs of abuse by colleagues:

  • Frequent and long disappearances from the work site.
  • Making long trips to the stockroom where drugs are kept.
  • Excessive amounts of time spent near a drug supply.
  • Heavy "wastage" of drugs.
  • Personality changes such as mood swings, anxiety and depression.

Seeking compensation for medical malpractice injuries

Medical malpractice, in the extreme, can cause death. Patients who do survive medical mistakes can face significant and sometimes permanent injuries. If you have been injured due to medical malpractice which you believe may have been caused by avoidable medical errors, or if a loved one has been injured or has died due to hospital or physician neglect, you should contact an experienced attorney. Medical malpractice cases are often difficult to prove. An attorney can help you sort out the facts and decide what your legal options are for seeking compensation.