Medication theft in nursing homes is potentially a really big problem

More than 100,000 doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers are abusing drugs—mostly, narcotics.

The healthcare industry is aware of the serious implications of widespread “drug diversion.” (“Drug diversion” is a nice way to say “stealing medication from sick people”.)

Any facility that handles drugs will have diversion going on…

USA Today: Doctors, medical staff on drugs put patients at risk
USA Today: Doctors, medical staff on drugs put patients at risk

But the industry is focused on the assumption that this prescription abuse mostly occurs in overworked hospitals and by doctors and medical staff at these hospitals.

The odds of medication theft in a nursing home

So if tens of thousands of hospital workers have both the will and opportunity to steal patient medication, how many nursing home workers are doing committing this act?

Consider these facts:

  1. The most widely abused prescription drugs are oxycodone and morphine derivatives.
  1. These painkillers are available in nursing homes, long-term care facilities, and throughout hospice care.
  1. None of these facilities have the same medication controls as a hospital.
  1. It’s easier to “divert” medication from elderly patients accustomed to some constant pain or discomfort.
  1. Elderly people are also more likely to have memory problems or suffer dementia; and, more likely to take multiple medications, making medication diversion harder to track.
  1. Elder care is a growing part of the healthcare industry, with thousands more nurses and aides needed every year.

Clearly, “drug diversion” is occurring in end-of-life and nursing home care. Yet, we almost never hear about it.

Reporting on medication theft is lax, at best. Even in the rare cases where caregivers are caught and turned in, they are rarely prosecuted. Many don’t even lose their healthcare license.

Healthcare workers under the influence of narcotics are putting elderly or infirm patients at risk.

And stealing painkillers from the elderly means those people are suffering needlessly.

How to report a suspected problem in a nursing home in Washington

  • ENDHARM hotline: Report your concerns about an elderly or disabled person to the Department of Social and Health Services by calling 1-866-ENDHARM (1-866-363-4276).
  • Adult Protective Services : Contact Adult Protective Services.
  • Complaint Resolution Unit:  If the person is living in a long-term care facility, call the Department of Social and Health Services at 1-800-562-6078.

If you suspect that an individual may be the victim of a crime, contact the local police or sheriff.  In case of an emergency, call 911.

Contact information from Washington State Attorney General’s office; updated August 2021.


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