Healthcare // Policy & Regulation
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4/22/2014
09:40 AM
Alison Diana
Alison Diana
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Doctors Doping: What Can Tech Do?

It's estimated 100,000 healthcare professionals abuse prescription drugs, endangering patients and hospitals. Video, bar coding, and even robots could bring the number down.

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A small but dangerous group of healthcare professionals abuse prescription medications despite the availability of technologies and best practices designed to thwart addicted or larcenous medical employees.

More than 100,000 doctors, nurses, technicians, and other healthcare employees are addicted to and steal drugs from their hospitals or practices, according to a recent USA Today article. They're stealing narcotics such as oxycodone and fentanyl in what hospitals euphemistically call "drug diversion."

Even when medical staff get help, 25% relapse, according to Dr. Penelope Ziegler of Virginia Health's Practitioners' Monitoring Program. Eventually about 90% return to practice, she said in an online presentation. Sometimes, addicted medical staff replace drugs with water or reuse needles, as in the case of a former New Hampshire radiology technician who caused a multi-state outbreak of hepatitis C.

[Does delaying our medical code overhaul hurt patients? Read ICD-10 Delay: Politics Trump Health Data Quality.]

Pharmacists are not immune to the lure of easy access to powerful painkillers, either. Between 2003 and 2013, 16 pharmacists and 41 pharmacy technicians in Maine alone lost their licenses for absconding with prescription medication from work.

Although some healthcare professionals wrote fake prescriptions, most simply removed their preferred medication from storage or the patient preparation area. As a result, healthcare companies are offering hospitals and pharmacies new ways to protect medications from internal theft. By investing in tools ranging from password-protected dispensing machines and barcoded bottles to robots, healthcare organizations safeguard patients and themselves from this small group of addicted medical professionals.

(Source: Aethon)

(Source: Aethon)

The SP 200 Robotic Prescription Dispensing System by ScriptPro and Tug by Aethon remove people from most medication tasks. Integrated with secure pharmacy management systems, robots replace traditional prescription carts, which can be error-prone and attractive to addicts. Automated pharmacy-management systems, which require passwords, badge swipes, fingerprints, or other security measures to access medication, have other benefits. St. Louis-based Mercy Hospital, for example, estimated it saved $600,000 in efficiencies since pharmacists, technicians, and nurses no longer must search for drugs among shelves and refrigerators.

Bar-coding drugs as part of tighter inventory controls not only reduces internal theft; it also improves accuracy. In one study, dispensing

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Alison Diana has written about technology and business for more than 20 years. She was editor, contributors, at Internet Evolution; editor-in-chief of 21st Century IT; and managing editor, sections, at CRN. She has also written for eWeek, Baseline Magazine, Redmond Channel ... View Full Bio

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Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
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4/22/2014 | 11:35:14 AM
High percentage
It's surprising to me that about 90% of those caught abusing are allowed to return to practice. Maybe if it were a "one strike and you're out of your high-paying job" situation, we wouldn't need to spend as much money and development effort on a high-tech arms race to stop abuse. It's not as if those resources aren't needed elsewhere.

 
Alison_Diana
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Alison_Diana,
User Rank: Author
4/22/2014 | 12:59:48 PM
Re: High percentage
Yes, @Lorna, but healthcare providers' security investments are also protecting drugs from external threats -- not just the very small percentage of healthcare professionals-turned-addicts (or those who steal for an extra buck). Not sure about a one strike and you're out rule although I was surprised that healthcare providers aren't forced to self-report professionals who abuse medication. I'd have hoped there was some notation on their record; after all, an employer should be aware that someone who is allowed to prescribe controlled substances has had a problem with these medications in the past, just so they can keep an extra eye on him/her or choose not to hire them. 
ChrisMurphy
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ChrisMurphy,
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4/22/2014 | 4:27:18 PM
Re: High percentage
Dunkin Donuts used a variation of the video surveillance approach to cut theft -- it linked video surveillance to cash registers, so a manager could see certain transactions (like voids and deletes) to see if employees were giving product away. That was several years ago (link below). Given the much higher stakes with high-priced and addictive drugs, it seems like some systems would make economic and safety sense. 

http://www.informationweek.com/it-leadership/20-innovative-it-ideas-to-steal/d/d-id/1100026?page_number=17
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
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4/22/2014 | 5:53:45 PM
Addictive pills: Protect 'em like data
Who would have thought it would take this much technology to prevent people from pocketing pills? But this speaks to how painkillers like oxycontin and others have become highly sought-after street drugs. They're addictive and lucrative enough to warrant the video surveillance, bar-coding and robotics designed to safeguard them from thieves inside and outside hospital walls. The fact that they make inventory and distribution of meds more efficient is a bonus.
Alison_Diana
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Alison_Diana,
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4/23/2014 | 2:35:17 PM
Re: Addictive pills: Protect 'em like data
It also makes sense from a patient security perspective, too. If hospitals carefully monitor and track prescription medications, it's less likely a patient will miss a dose or get a double dose of something, addictive or not. So there is a patient safety aspect and a cost-savings, too. Even though some medications are pretty safe, have no street value, and are unlikely to disappear for any illicit reasons, they can be misplaced and that means hospitals would need to unnecessarily replace them. That can add up. 
Research: Healthcare IT Priorities
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