Drug theft, abuse ongoing problems in Perth hospitals

Stock image.
Stock image.

THE theft and misuse of dangerous drugs is an ongoing problem in WA hospitals, according to a Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC) WA report.

The ‘Report on serious misconduct risks around drugs in hospitals’ was tabled in Parliament last week and highlighted concerns about the level and nature of unexplained drug discrepancies and the failure by employees to report them.

It also criticised the way in which the issue of missing drugs in hospitals was investigated by WA Health and the reasons behind the discrepancies.

As part of its investigation, the CCC analysed notifications it received from WA Health about drug discrepancies in the use and management of restricted drugs over the four-year period from July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2017.

The analysis found that 47 per cent, or 183 out of 390, notifications were from Royal Perth Hospital (RPH), Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital (SCGH) and Fremantle Hospital (FH).

Of those 183 notifications, 52 per cent occurred on the wards, 27.5 per cent in emergency, 9 per cent on night shift, 23 per cent on a weekend shift (where a date was identified), and 16 notifications related to the loss of a patient’s own drugs.

According to the report, discrepancies and instances of drug-related behaviour had “sometimes been investigated by health professionals or human resources officers”, rather than by professional investigators.

“This can increase the difficulty in identifying the reason for the discrepancy and, if there has been a theft, in collecting evidence which will enable the person responsible to be identified and dealt with by a criminal or disciplinary process,” it read.

“WA Health has been inclined to deal with employees with drug offending behaviour from a welfare perspective, which may not sufficiently prevent future risks to patients and colleagues.”

The report included a case study where two WA Health employees died between December 2009 and June 2010 from overdosing on drugs, “almost certainly obtained from the hospitals” where they worked.

“In some cases, stealing a patient’s medicine is an easy way for a health professional to obtain drugs,” the report stated.

“First, they are able to legitimately access the drug.

“Second, patients are not likely to be aware if they are receiving a lower dosage than prescribed.”

In its recommendations, the CCC concluded that a review of hospital policies around drug management was needed, including the reporting of drug discrepancies and staff education and training.

Department of Health director general Dr David Russell-Weisz said health service providers would consider the recommendations and, where appropriate, take action in the context of patient safety and the expectations of the wider community.

“The volume and nature of medicine management, in a variety of settings across the State, makes this issue a complex and constantly changing aspect of hospital management,” he said.

“In 2014-15 alone, more than 2.5 million schedule 8 or schedule 4R tablets (restricted drugs) moved through hospital pharmacies and wards, with an average daily usage of 7400 tablets.

“While any drug discrepancies are a concern, it should be noted the total number of reported drug discrepancies by WA Health was small compared to the overall number of drug transactions.”

Dr Russell-Weisz said the WA health system’s main priority was patient safety and that health service providers would continue to work to ensure stringent quality control measures were in place and maintained.

Shadow health minister Sean L’Estrange said the serious misconduct in relation to restricted drugs was dangerous because they were addictive and misuse could be fatal.

“The Government’s recent budget included cuts of more than $200 million over the forward estimates,” he said.

“It is very important that these cuts do not prevent the Department of Health from being able to implement the key recommendations of the CCC.”

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