In the spring of 2009, I heard the words, "You have hepatitis C." This diagnosis changed my life completely.
I am one of the 19 patients who was infected with hepatitis C at Rose Medical Center in 2009. Later, it was revealed that a surgical tech had been diverting drugs for over six months, injecting herself, refilling the syringes with saline and placing them back onto surgical trays. Nearly 6,000 patients were put in harm's way.
This week, it was reported that Swedish Medical Center is asking about 2,900 patients to get tested for HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C after discovering that a former employee may have stolen narcotic pain medicines. The news strikes an eerily similar tone.
My heart breaks for the patients who sit and wait and worry while results from blood tests come back. But the truth of the matter is this could have been prevented. It did not need to happen.
Swedish is a member of HCA Healthcare, the largest health care operator in the world, and sister to Rose Medical Center, where the outbreak occurred seven years ago. You would think they would have a better system in place to prevent diversion. You would think they may have learned from the past mistakes at Rose. Still, this happened again.
Shortly after the news broke of the outbreak in 2009, as I wrestled with severe health issues and struggled with fear of what might happen to me as the mother of a 1-year-old daughter, I realized that worrying was not enough. I had to jump into action and help prevent this from ever happening again.
For the last six years, I have been telling my story, sharing educational materials and reinforcing best practices, and making health care professionals and patients aware of the potential risks of unsafe injections and possible drug diversion.
Along with my colleagues at HONOReform, I have joined the National Drug Diversion Committee to discuss the need to develop a formal program to prevent, detect and respond to these risks on a national level.
Ironically, legislation that I lobbied for in the 2010 Colorado legislature, House Bill 1415, is up for review.
The national Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Care Organizations has certain competency requirements for medical staff, but they do not go far enough. And the state of Colorado does not mandate background checks for new employees. The Colorado law is important and necessary.
Also, in my research and travels, I discovered that many hospitals don't even do a pre-employment drug screen. If health care facilities can be this lax in employment screening and protocols, where are the other gaps?
While we know drug diversion happens, the data is unreliable about the frequency. Some incidents are never discovered. And some incidents of drug diversion never get reported outside a hospital system. But the threat is real. Hospital staff and patients remain at risk.
To reinforce the need for sustained attention to the issue, I partnered with the One and Only Campaign in Colorado to help raise awareness among patients and health care providers about safe injection practices. I am also working with the International Health Facilities Diversion Association, an organization that is devoted to protecting patients, staff and facilities from the harm associated with drug diversion by health care personnel.
My hope is to support those who are going through this very difficult time and allow the conversation to begin about tighter safety protocols and fixing broken health care systems. There is help out there for those who need it. I know because I was once in your shoes.
And for health care facilities, there are examples of very efficient and effective safety standards that have been tried and tested and succeed in the common goal of keeping everyone safe.
Lauren Lollini (lauren.lollini@ gmail.com) is a psychotherapist now living in Illinois.
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