When Kristin Waite-Labott, a nurse in Wisconsin, began stealing fentanyl and morphine from her hospital’s medical supply cabinets, she found it was relatively easy to cover her tracks.
Her drug inventory paperwork often didn’t add up, but she found coworkers willing to cover for her.
“They trusted me” she said. “Unfortunately I was taking advantage of that trust and that happens all the time.”
But Waite-Labott’s addiction to fentanyl quickly spiraled out of control.
“Taking it one time, I instantly craved more. It’s so powerful and deadly,” she said.
Waite-Labott eventually lost her job and spent time in jail before entering recovery and regaining her nursing license.
She works now helping other health workers who struggle with addiction and says she’s still haunted by the thought of patients she might have harmed.
“I don’t know that I made any errors,” she said. “But I can’t be certain of that because I was under the influence at work.”
NPR found a growing number of health industry experts and researchers who warn this kind of on-the-job drug theft by health workers may be increasing.
“It’s extremely common and the consequences can be very very grave,” said Kimberly New, an expert on medical drug misuse, known in the industry as diversion.
Patients in pain, patients taking contaminated medications
Harm to patients from drug diversion can be severe. In extreme cases, health workers divert so much medication, patients wind up undergoing cancer treatments or post-surgical recovery without pain relief.
“Patients will be left to linger in pain and not receive the doses that they were supposed to receive,” New said. “The diverter has progressed to the point where they’re no longer willing to share with the patients.”
Studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Mayo Clinic also found healthcare workers who steal drugs frequently tamper with medications, leaving them contaminated.
“I go and take a fentanyl vial, I administer the entire vial to myself and I refill the vial with water,” New said, describing a typical scenario. “Unfortunately many patients have been infected with blood-born pathogens.”
The Mayo Clinic study found as many as 28,000 hospital patients were put at risk of contracting Hepatitis C over a 10-year period because of this kind of drug theft and tampering.
Last year, physicians at a Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, N.Y., reported six of their patients contracted a rare bacterial blood infection after a nurse replaced opioid medications with tap water.
“We share our experience to alert health care providers,” the doctors wrote in The New England Journal of Medicine