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When Hospital Safeguards Against Drug Theft Aren’t Enough

Tennessee man poses as surgeon to nab painkillers

Although hospitals are constantly working to tighten their security measures against drug theft, it can be hard to anticipate theft strategies, according to an article in the Chattanooga Times-Free Press.

Recently, security guards at Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee, caught 26-year-old Ryan Epperson, a corrections officer at Hamilton County Jail, posing as a surgeon and stealing painkillers. His arrest followed an ongoing investigation into drug thefts at Erlanger as well as at two other major hospitals in downtown Chattanooga –– Parkridge Medical Center and CHI Memorial.

The audacity of Epperson’s strategy meant that the hospitals’ security measures, such as regular pill counts, heavy surveillance, and room restrictions, weren’t enough to prevent the thefts, said Tennessee Board of Pharmacy President Reggie Dillard.

“The hospitals may have had every security measure in place, but they may not have anticipated someone so brazen,” Dillard told the Times-Free Press. “Once he developed the scenario that worked at one hospital, he probably found it would work at any hospital. Nothing is bulletproof.”

All three facilities have strict regulations regarding employee IDs and multilayer security protocols, but Epperson had done enough research to bypass such measures, indicating familiarity through personal experience or through a contact in health care. For example, Epperson knew when Parkridge’s radiology lab would be unoccupied, and he was able to park in Erlanger’s physician lot.

Increased security protocols might safeguard against a similar incident, but drug theft by real hospital employees is a major problem within the industry as well, according to FierceHealthcare. A report last year found that more than 100,000 medical professionals abuse or are addicted to prescription drugs, and the high-stress hospital environment often exacerbates that behavior.

State policies can also increase the risk of drug theft by employees. For example, in Virginia, health care employers often do not report drug abuse by nurses to the state, and this failure to report, while illegal, is hardly ever punished, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

Erlanger spokeswoman Pat Charles said a complete inventory of all narcotics is performed at designated times at the hospital; counted by a nurse from the oncoming shift; and witnessed by an off-going shift nurse. Incidents of inaccurate or missing drugs “are brought to the attention of the nurse manager,” Charles said.

Red flags are usually thrown up by the Pyxis MedStation. This machine, essentially a digital medicine cabinet, requires specific log-in information to open the compartments in which drugs are stored.

Sources: FierceHealthcare; June 1, 2015; and Chattanooga Times–Free Press; May 30, 2015.

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