4800 Utah Patients could have been exposed to Hepatitis C through Unsafe Injections

Steve Langan, director of HONOReform
Steve Langan, director of HONOReform

It was revealed late last month that nurse Elet Neilson, also known as Elet Hamblin, who has a confirmed case of hepatitis C, was fired by McKay-Dee Hospital of Ogden, Utah in November 2014 (“Hospital acting cautiously,” Oct. 31). At least one of the 4,800 patients who had contact with this nurse during her tenure at the hospital, June 2013 to November 2014, has been infected with the same genotype of hepatitis C as Neilson.

On behalf of HONOReform, a national patient advocacy organization with a focus on safeguarding the medical injection process, I join these patients and their family members in hoping and praying that none of these patients has been infected with this life-threatening disease. I encourage all of these patients to contact the Utah Department of Health and get tested.

As I urge these patients to follow up and verify that they are not affected, I also feel compelled to ask some burning questions. Why did it take so long, almost a year, to send these notification letters to all of these patients? Considering the level of this theft and the number of people who have been put in harm’s way, by not receiving the proper medication dosage or by a vulnerability to infection, how was this nurse only charged with a misdemeanor?

Additionally, what has the leadership of McKay-Dee done to make necessary changes to protect its patients and its staff? The venerable Massachusetts General Hospital was recently fined $2.3 million dollars for employee infractions involving drug diversion. Is this what it’s going to take, large fines levied against health care centers, to begin to fix this problem?

Drug diversion among health care workers is a national problem. And it may be the most enormous elephant in the room in health care. According to reporter Peter Eisler, writing in USA Today in April 2014, “100,000 doctors, nurses, medical technicians are abusing or dependent on prescription drugs in a given year, putting patients at risk.”

At a recent drug diversion prevention meeting sponsored by the New Jersey Department of Health at Rutgers University, Mitch G. Sobel, director of pharmacy services at the St. Joseph’s Healthcare System in Paterson, N.J., said the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs Prescription Monitoring Program estimated this number at 370,000.

Experts tell us it isn’t long, for many drug addicts, before their addiction compels them to inject drugs. When covert injecting occurs in a health care setting, many aspects of the injection process are violated. Any time an injection is given improperly, there is a risk that one patient or more will be infected with a life-threatening bloodborne illness, including hepatitis C and HIV.
Just one drop of blood in a reused syringe or medication vial can be enough to infected a patient. There is also the impact on the care of the patient who may remain in unnecessary pain during his or her recovery process.

There is a current discussion among federal leaders and others on assembling a national meeting to have a full conversation on drug diversion prevention, and outline and recommend next steps. It is the right thing to do, not only for patients throughout the country but for the addicted health care workers who need and deserve protocols and regulations that prevent drug diversion.

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