BOSTON (CBS) — When hit with a serious illness or injury, few patients feel more vulnerable then when they are being wheeled into an operating room. The last thing most of those people would ever consider is the possibility their doctor or nurse could be high on drugs. But it happens, sometimes with devastating consequences.
“I could barely get out of bed,” explained Lauren Lollini, a young woman who was infected with hepatitis C after surgery.
She got it from a drug-addicted surgical technician who shot herself up with a powerful drug meant for use during Lollini’s surgery.
She then filled the syringe with saline and slipped it back into place. That dirty needle carried the virus that causes hepatitis.
That technician, Kristen Parker, went on to infect three dozen other people with hepatitis before she was caught.
“I never thought in a million years this would happen,” she tearfully said in a jailhouse confession.
NO TESTING IN HEALTHCARE
If Parker was a driver for the MBTA or an airline pilot, she would have had a much tougher time keeping her addiction a secret. She would have been randomly tested for drugs.
Doctors and nurses face no such requirement, unless they work in the anesthesiology department at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“We have the exact same incidence of substance abuse as the general population,” explained Dr. Michael Fitzsimons, who started Mass General’s drug testing program.
Anesthesiology is also a high risk specialty because the most potent drugs are readily available to doctors and nurses.
Dr. Fitzsimons told the I-Team that he has had to remove doctors who tested positive, but he would not get into numbers.
Most patients would not have that protection. The I-Team found state records that show many doctors have been disciplined or suspended for drug abuse.
Many took Fentanyl, the same drug Kristen Parker stole from her patients. Some admitted being addicted for years, while they were seeing patients.
“STAKES ARE TOO HIGH”
Diane Pinakiewicz is the president of the National Patient Safety Foundation, an organization formed to make sure the rights of patients come first. She believes the stakes are too high to let drug addicted doctors slip through the cracks.
“You certainly wouldn’t want a patient exposed to someone who could potentially do them harm,” she said.
TESTING NOT POPULAR
Random drug testing is not a popular idea within the medical community. The American Medical Association has gone on record as being opposed to it.
Dr. Fitzsimons says there are a lot of legitimate reasons for that, not the least of which is the cost. Mass General spends thousands of dollars a year and some hospitals simply don’t have that kind of extra cash laying around.
There are also privacy concerns.
“I understand the concerns about rights,” Pinakiewicz explained, “but again, it’s the patients’ rights that have to take first precedence.”
Patient safety is an argument Dr. Fitzsimons says is hard to argue with. The 36 people who now live a chronic and potentially fatal disease agree.
“You’ve got those concerns always in the back of your head. What else is going to happen?” said Lauren Lollini.
WHEN TESTING CAN BE DONE
Medical professionals can be tested if a colleague suspects they are impaired. But because they know how these drugs work, many become skilled at hiding their addictions.
Right now there are no proposals to make widespread drug testing mandatory.