Author: Joseph Perz, DrPH, MA
Quality Standards and Safety Team Leader
for the Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion,
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
When prescription medicines are stolen or used illegally, it is called drug diversion.
Prescription opioid addiction has reached epidemic proportions and is a major driver of drug diversion. One aspect of drug diversion that is not well recognized involves healthcare personnel who steal controlled substances for their personal use. Under these circumstances, patient harm can take many forms. These include:
- Substandard care delivered by an impaired healthcare provider,
- Denial of essential pain medication or therapy, or
- Risks of infection (hepatitis C virus, hepatitis B virus, HIV, bacterial infection) if a provider tampers with injectable drugs.
CDC and state and local health departments have helped investigate outbreaks that occurred when healthcare providers tampered with injectable drugs. Along with my CDC colleague Dr. Melissa Schaefer and I recently published a summary of six of these outbreaks, which were investigated over the last ten years.
These outbreaks revealed gaps in prevention, detection, and response to drug diversion. To prevent diversion, healthcare facilities should enforce strong narcotics security measures and maintain active monitoring systems. Appropriate response when diversion is suspected or identified includes prompt reporting to enforcement agencies and assessment of harm to patients, including assessment of possible infection risks.