On-the-job drug theft by health care workers appears to be on the rise, leaving patients at risk of taking contaminated medications or going without much-needed pain relief while undergoing cancer treatment or after surgery.

Studies by the Mayo Clinic and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found as many as 28,000 patients over a ten-year period risked contracting Hepatitis C due to drug tampering and theft – also known as drug diversion.

Only a “fraction” of hospital drug thefts are detected

Another study, published last year in the Journal of Hospital Medicine, warned that instances of drug theft in hospitals appear to be accelerating. Federal law requires health care facilities to secure opioids and other controlled substances and have an inventory system in place.

However, Kit Check, a company monitoring drug supplies at hundreds of U.S. hospitals, unveiled its own investigation raising more red flags. The company reports roughly 110,000 cases where high-risk drugs couldn’t be accounted for by hospitals and clinics.

Drug diversion costly to many patients

While some patients are left to deal with pain caused by not receiving the full dosage prescribed, others’ lives are put at risk by health care workers who tamper with these controlled substances.

An expert in drug theft says, in one case, a health care worker administered an entire vial of fentanyl to themselves and refilled the vial with water. As a result, patients were exposed to more significant risks, including becoming infected with blood-borne pathogens.

Oversight is limited

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) tells NPR it has investigated more than 3,500 drug theft cases in the past five years, including 280 reported so far in 2020. However, the DEA says its attention is mostly focused on other matters.

The agency says the true extent of the problem isn’t known as health care facilities are mostly responsible for self-policing. If they don’t report a problem, law enforcement and federal authorities will likely never find out.