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Prescription Drug Abuse Among Nurses A Growing Problem

Barbara Harrington

More than 5 percent of Hoosiers have abused prescription drugs. The data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows it’s a growing problem, particularly among healthcare workers.

The term used to describe the practice is ‘healthcare drug diversion.’ It occurs when hospital workers steal medications from a facility.

Rigo Garcia is a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist and never thought he would be tempted to abuse prescription drugs.

But, that changed after he broke his ankle playing recreational baseball. For the first time in his life, Rigo took pain medication.

A Nurse’s Battle With Prescription Drug Addiction

Initially, Rigo relied on the pills to help relieve the soreness from his injury.

“The time came pretty soon that I needed to be off the medication so I could go back to work,” Rigo said. “And, I realized pretty early on that I was having some signs and symptoms I would associate with withdrawal.”

Rigo tried to wean himself off the medication, but became irritable and would sometimes battle flu-like symptoms. So, he kept taking the pills.

At his worst, that meant up to 12 in just one night.

“When I did go back to work, still on prescription medications, I would just not take them while I was at work,”Rigo said. “I would run home to take them, I would take them before work, on the weekends. Any time I could.”

Rigo’s wife, Claudia, was working at the same hospital at the time. She could tell something was wrong with Rigo when he started disappearing at work and became withdrawn.

“We looked away, we didn’t want to see it,” Claudia said. “We knew he needed help, we weren’t 100 percent sure what was going on.”

Combating Healthcare Drug Diversion

Rigo’s story sounds familiar to many of the people who attended the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators (NADDI) training session in Columbus this week.

They spent two days learning about how to prevent and recognize drug diversion at their workplaces.

“Diversion happens at every facility across the country that handles controlled substances,” said Kimberly New, a controlled substance security consultant. “It’s huge. It’s universal at institutions.”

New says there are several ways healthcare workers can divert drugs. In some cases, they’ll take a portion of a patient’s prescription for themselves. There are also instances of nurses using an injectable medication, filling the syringe back up with a water or saline solution and administering it to a patient.

“Patients can be harmed in a number of ways by a diverting healthcare provider,” New said. “If they’re a direct care provider, they may be working impaired. And, they can actually render incompetent care to a patient and the patient may be harmed.”

It’s difficult to put a number on how often that’s happening, because some facilities aren’t reporting the problem.

Instead, they choose to discipline employees themselves or ignore the issue altogether – a tactic  police say isn’t helping.

“I think the majority of non-reporting is done deliberately,” said NADDI President John Burke. “And, I think it has to do with media. They’re concerned about media attention, lawsuits, liability. And, I get that. But when you don’t report or you delay reporting, the liability and the issues can be much, much greater than doing what’s right when it happens.”

There are regulations in place that require people to report instances of drug diversion at their workplaces. But, it’s hard to enforce.

Columbus Police Department Sergeant Jay Frederick says compliance would be higher if regulations were tougher.

“There are some things in place, but there are still a lot of loopholes,” Frederick said. “So, it would be good to see the federal government lock that down, address this diversion in the healthcare field as a significant issue and lock down some reporting requirements.”

Educating Those At Risk

But, in the meantime, Frederick says increasing awareness can go a long way in fighting drug diversion.

He says healthcare providers are often nervous to ask for help or report others who may need it because they don’t know the consequences.

In Indiana, if professionals admit their addiction and successfully complete treatment, they can have the criminal charges removed from their records and their licenses can remain intact.

“There’s not many professions or jobs where you can own up to the addiction issue, go right into the treatment that’s going to get you better, get you healthy – but, you can keep your license and you can keep on practicing,” Frederick said.

That’s something Rigo didn’t realize when he was struggling with his addiction. It took the hospital CEO confronting him and giving him an ultimatum before he got help at a treatment center for professionals.

“If I knew personally what correct steps I could have taken, I would have done something a lot sooner,” he said. “But, I didn’t know what steps were available to me at that time. I didn’t know there was a treatment center I could go to and my job would be safe.”

Rigo Garcia hasn't abused prescription drugs in years and still works as a CRNA.

It’s been more than four years since Rigo’s abused pain medications. But, it’s a part of his life he doesn’t hide.

He still works as a CRNA, but spends his spare time sharing his story with others, like those at the NADDI conference.

And, he hopes it makes a difference.

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