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Safety Needles: A simple solution to drug diversion in hospitals

As we have seen over the last few years, drug diversion, or theft of drugs, by healthcare personnel poses a continuous threat to patient safety in any healthcare setting in which controlled substances are handled.

In a 2014 study, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that, in 2010, as many as 1.7 million people were infected with Hepatitis B, at least 315,000 with Hepatitis C, and as many as 33,800 with HIV through an unsafe injection.

In the last several years, multiple outbreaks and instances of drug diversion have been reported. Some have proven more serious than others, but the fact that it is occurring in these professional settings is scary for anyone possibly linked to disease outbreaks. Denver, CO has seen it happen at least three times over the last decade.

In July 2009, Kristen Parker, a surgical technician was formally charged in federal court with multiple counts related to the exposure of patients at Rose Medical Center in Denver to Hepatitis C. She is currently serving a thirty-year sentence.

Later that month, Jillian Fischer, a 43-year-old woman working for Centura Health's St. Anthony Central Hospital, was arrested and charged with six felony offenses of obtaining a controlled substance by fraud or deceit.

Then, the infamous "serial infector," David Kwiatkowski, who was a travelling radiologic technician, went through seven states, infecting more than forty patients with Hepatitis C. He was arrested in 2012 and eventually sentenced to thirty-nine years in prison. As to why he didn't receive the maximum forty-year sentence, the judge told him that some people could still show compassion, something Kwiatkowski has failed to do.

Late last year, Elet Neilson, an emergency room nurse at McKay-Dee Hospital and Davis Hospital in Utah was arrested for stealing drugs and sits in jails as an investigation remains ongoing. The number of people in Salt Lake and surrounding areas that were potentially exposed to Hepatitis C has reached more than 7000.

Now, it is Rocky Allen, a surgical technician who may have exposed patients in Washington, California, Arizona, and Colorado to HIV, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C. This is a just a sample of the few medical professionals who have been caught and charged with drug diversion. In an in-depth interview in Newsweek, Kwiatkowski says it is much, much worse than Americans think.

There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of articles on drug diversion and how the above drug diverting healthcare providers have affected so many lives. However, there really hasn't been much talk about how to prevent the spread of infections like Hepatitis C, Hepatitis B, and HIV due to drug diversion.

One simple and effective solution to make sure patients are safe from drug diverting healthcare providers: sterile, single-use safety needles.

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Safety needles are single-use with a retractable needle. These safety needles are failsafe and have a passive spring-aided retraction of the needle, by back-end activation. The retracted needle and needle holder is securely locked inside the central channel of the plunger as well as to the barrel. After use, the entire syringe is interlocked, immobile and inoperable. The safety needle is not possible to re-use and must be disposed of.

So why aren't these safety needles being used in all hospitals, you ask?

Well, many say because manufacturers haven't had a market and therefore, they have no incentive. Syringes are a commodity and there is a very low margin on disposable medical products.

How much more do the safety syringes or needles cost?

On average, they cost around 5 cents more than a regular syringe. In fact, there are some safety needles out there costing the same as a regular needle.

The hypocrisy

Healthcare providers and insurance companies complain about the high cost of medical malpractice claims, constantly pointing to "undeserving plaintiffs" who receive too much compensation and cause premiums to skyrocket. However, if the healthcare industry focused its attention on fixing these types of serious internal problems-such as thousands of patients being exposed and infected to Hepatitis and HIV – malpractice claims might not be such a problem. The truth is that when hospital administrators fail to properly investigate the people they hire, fail to develop or enforce policies to limit access to controlled drugs, and fail to effectively address drug diversion as an issue, the institution has failed as a whole and they are self-exposing themselves and their employees to malpractice claims.

What is the good news?

The good news is that the World Health Organization (WHO) is campaigning by urging countries to transition, by 2020, to the exclusive use of single use, safety needles. WHO is calling on manufacturers to begin or expand production as soon as possible of safety needles that meet WHO's standards for performance, quality and safety.

Unfortunately, the delay from the medical industry in embracing single-use needles means that millions of people around the world have needlessly been exposed to, and suffered the ill effects of contracting, injection-born infections, such as Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and HIV.

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