After a series of highly publicized drug diversion incidents by healthcare workers in Colorado in recent years, the state passed a law that requires surgical technologists to register and submit to a background check.
Effective Aug. 10, 2016, Colorado law (House Bill 16-1160) requires that surgical techs pass a criminal history record check and submit fingerprints to the state Bureau of Investigation. The law also stipulates that employers requiring surgical techs to take a drug test must forward any positive results for a non-prescribed controlled substance to state officials.
In the latest of a succession of incidents in Colorado, last year the state charged an HIV-positive surgical technician with stealing opioid drugs, leading to a recommendation that some 3,000 patients at Swedish Medical Center in Englewood be tested for bloodborne viruses.
Colorado may now have the strongest law in the land to address what is clearly a national problem. Addicted healthcare workers are another spectrum in a national opioid epidemic that has reached epic proportions. Surgical techs who are “travelers” or agency workers have been able to go from hospital to hospital, even in cases where they have been discovered diverting and fired.
Hospitals fearing liability in drug diversion incidents may be reluctant to report and prosecute diverters. In the most egregious case to date, an HCV-infected traveling radiology technician was linked to a cluster of HCV patient infections at a New Hampshire hospital in 2012. The subsequent investigation uncovered a large HCV outbreak spanning several years, involving more than a dozen hospitals and affecting thousands of patients in eight states. The technician was stealing syringes filled with narcotics, self-injecting, refilling them with saline, and placing them back into the procedure area, officials reported. He was sentenced to 39 years in prison.
According to the CDC, there have been an estimated 100 patient infections and 30,000 potentially exposed patients via drug diversion reported in U.S. healthcare facilities over the last decade.1
With a history of drug use, the diverter is often infected with HCV or other bloodborne pathogens. The addicted healthcare worker may contaminate syringes and solutions in diverting drugs, leading to an outbreak among patients. In the absence of an outbreak, other infections and patient harms are likely going undetected as sporadic bloodborne infections that may not be discovered for some time may not be traced back to a drug diversion incident.
- Schaefer, M.K., Perz, J.F. Outbreaks of infections associated with drug diversion by US health care personnel. Mayo Clin Proc 2014;89:878–887.