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Drug diversion: Understand addiction and how it unfolds

Rodrigo Garcia, MBA, MSN, APN-BC, CRNA, was thriving as a nurse in the late 1990s and into the 2000s in Indiana. Drug diversion wasn’t even on his radar.

drug diversion

Rodrigo Garcia, MBA, MSN, APN-BC, CRNA

He worked in all types of critical care areas and was eager to take his career to the next level by completing his education and training as a nurse anesthetist in 2004.

Little did he know an ankle injury during a baseball game and subsequent reconstructive surgery a few years later would change the direction of his life.

“I was probably 29 years old at the time,” Garcia said. “That was the first time in my life that I had ever been prescribed or took an opioid. It was a legitimate prescription for the pain, for the surgery, for the post-op, the recovery and the rehab.”

The legitimate pain prescribing lasted for three months — plenty of time for Garcia’s body to become physically dependent on opioids.

But even he didn’t know what was happening at first.

“I was never in a situation where there was this euphoria, or I liked getting high, or I was chasing the buzz,” he said. “It started with the withdrawal symptoms, which are absolutely crushing and debilitating.”

Garcia thought he had the flu, then realized he needed to take more of the drug to stop the pain.

No one noticed the drug diversion for quite a while

In the years that followed, Garcia said he was the consummate “super nurse.”

“I’d come in early,” he said. “I’d stay late. I didn’t take bathroom breaks. I didn’t take lunch breaks. I took on more patients than I could handle. I’d miss my son’s T-ball game.”

In reality, Garcia wanted to work in order to get access to the medication. He was diverting meds from the hospital waste receptacle. Even his wife, who was the charge nurse in the surgery department from which her husband was diverting opioids, thought there might be something wrong but wasn’t sure what it was.

“There was suspicion especially toward the end, but everything that I was doing to sustain the addiction on paper looked like I was a super nurse,” Garcia said. “I was winning awards during this whole time.”

Many of Garcia’s colleagues tried to help but were unsuccessful. The interventions went from friendly to punitive. Garcia was fired, escorted off the facility and forced into a treatment center.

It was then he realized he was dealing with something much bigger than taking a couple of pills or a few ccs of opioids, and he couldn’t get through it alone.

Garcia had to deal with consequences from his state’s attorney general and board of nursing. He had to take mandatory time off work, self-report and agree to be monitored. But after about a year, Garcia got back on his feet and under close monitoring, began practicing anesthesia.

He and his wife Claudia Garcia, MBA, BSN, RN, CADAC II, LAC, started speaking publicly about the experience. They returned to school to earn master’s degrees and in 2015 opened the Parkdale Center, a treatment center focused on helping healthcare professionals get beyond addiction.

Today, Garcia is CEO of Parkdale Center in Chesterton, Ind., and Parkdale Solutions, a consultative service for healthcare facilities to help identify and address diversion of controlled substances by employees. Garcia said he now also runs Indiana’s monitoring program for impaired nurses, pharmacists and podiatrists — the very program that once monitored him.

Drug diversion at U.S. hospitals

Drug diversion at hospitals occurs in different ways. Employees, including nurses, might be diverting from a hospital’s waste receptacle to support their habits, which is what Garcia did.

The next level of diversion, according to Garcia, happens when employees divert opioids or controlled substances from patients. And in some cases, employees divert drugs from the hospital to distribute on the streets or to other people.

Garcia estimates 10% of the nursing workforce is battling issues with addiction. Hospital environments create the perfect storm to fuel addiction, according to Garcia, because they offer access to medications, high achievement and high stress.

Addiction signs and symptoms

Addiction is not always evident unless one knows where to look, according to Garcia. In its early stages, addiction is a physical dependency on a medication. Psychological addiction happens later.

“The full-blown addiction is a psychological addiction,” Garcia said. “That’s when you start having the mental health contributing factors — the depression, the anxiety, the trauma that has been unresolved, the high stress.”

Coworkers who better understand the problem might identify coworkers suffering earlier — before it becomes a psychological addiction, Garcia said.

“By the time nurses and the administration can see the stereotypical signs of diversion and addiction, the addiction has progressed to later stages,” Garcia said. “You’ll see the disheveled nurse. Maybe you’ll see some track marks. Maybe you’ll see them nodding off, losing weight, irritability. When you see all those stereotypical things the addiction has already been going on for a very long time.”

Ironically, the problem of addiction is happening where people expect it least — among some of the most accomplished, highly educated nurses, physicians, pharmacists, etc., according to Garcia.

“The addict, the impaired nurse, the impaired provider, they’re intelligent,” Garcia said. “They graduated in the top 25% of their class. They’re often supervisors. They hold advanced degrees. They’re well liked. They’re charming. They come in early. They stay late. They offer to do all the cases.”

First step is admitting the problem exists

Drug diversion by hospital employees is a hidden epidemic feeding into the nation’s opioid crisis, according to the report Health Care’s Hidden Epidemic: A Call to Action on Hospital Drug Diversion released in 2019 by medical technology company BD.

But there’s an element of denial. Based on the report’s survey of 650 healthcare professionals about drug diversion in U.S. hospitals, 85% of providers surveyed are concerned about drug diversion but only one in five thinks it’s cause for concern where they work.

drug diversion

Kelly Robke, MBA, MS, RN

There are ways in which nurses become proactive, getting involved with and leading efforts to monitor for and address drug diversion, according to Kelly Robke, MBA, MS, RN, vice president of clinical thought leadership at BD.

  • Communicate. “Narcotic diversion by healthcare providers in the inpatient care setting can be a taboo subject, allowing this phenomenon to fly under the radar,” Robke said. “Peer-to-peer conversations and other open communications can help nurses understand the risks they face. Statements, such as ‘I’m concerned about you. I want to help you’ or ‘I don’t know what is going on, but I think you need to get help,’ are good ways to express concern for colleagues and show support to a colleague who may be at risk.”
  • Pay close attention to injuries. “In addition to the role nurses play as leaders in care delivery and advocates for patients, the profession can be physically demanding,” Robke said. “Through the delivery of patient care, nurses can periodically sustain physical injuries related to their duties. Sometimes injured nurses may return to work before they are fully healed, making opiates available for patient administration particularly tempting to take for their own pain control. Nurses coming back from an injury can be supportively monitored to ensure they are ready to return.”
  • Take advantage of support systems. “Nursing can be quite stressful,” Robke said. “While most nurses employed in the inpatient setting are generally aware of employee assistance and other programs that can help them manage their stress, many do not take advantage of programs that can assist with substance use disorder, or subsequent opiate diversion from inpatient care medication supplies. Encouraging colleagues to access their hospital’s emotional support programs can ease the pressure and potentially prevent diversion.”

Garcia’s message to nurses? There is help.

“There’s a way to preserve your license. There’s a way to preserve your integrity. There’s a way to preserve your ability to work and support your family, and there’s a way to get better,” Garcia said. “You just have to take the first step and ask for help.”

Nurses can contact a center like Garcia’s or contact their state board monitoring program. If nurses reach out before punitive action happens, they can get help without going through what Garcia did.

“If I would have known that there was a way to get help without getting in trouble, I would have asked for help many, many months earlier,” he said.

Take these courses about drug diversion:

Prescription Drug Abuse
(1 contact hr)
Most people take prescribed medications properly, but many obtain drugs fraudulently, use medications that are not prescribed to them, or use more than prescribed or take them for reasons other than medically indicated. The nonmedical use of prescription drugs has been increasing rapidly in recent years. The most commonly abused prescription drug categories include pain relievers, stimulants, sedatives, and tranquilizers. Drug overdose deaths more than tripled from 1999 to 2015. Through 2015, drug overdose remained a large and growing public health crisis in the United States. This CE module provides nurses with information about prescription drug abuse, high-risk groups, factors related to misuse, and assessment/treatment strategies.

Recognizing Drug-Seeking Behavior
(1 contact hr)
The 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated that 6.2 million Americans ages 12 and older misused psychotherapeutic drugs in the previous month. Of those, 3.3 million were misusers of pain relievers, 2 million of tranquilizers, 1.7 million of stimulants, and 497,000 of sedatives (totals exceed 6.2 million because some of those surveyed misused more than one type of drug). The increased emphasis on pain management to improve quality of life and functionality of people who live with chronic pain has contributed to more than a twofold increase in the number of opioid prescriptions being written in the U.S. The ethical need to adequately treat pain must be balanced with a responsibility to minimize misuse and abuse of medications that treat pain. We are in the midst of an opioid abuse epidemic, and drug seeking is especially problematic.

Controlled Substances Prescribing Practices
(1 contact hr)
Healthcare providers face many difficulties when prescribing controlled substances for pain control, anxiety disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The pressure to aggressively treat patients’ symptoms, coupled with current public health problems such as rising drug overdose rates, creates a major dilemma for healthcare providers. Determining which patients could benefit from prescribed controlled substances and which patients could be harmed by taking these medications is not always easy. Discussing recent guidelines and evidence-based literature evaluating safe prescribing practices can be beneficial to both healthcare providers and patients. Completion of this module will satisfy one hour continuing medical education for states that require specific continuing medical education for prescribing controlled substances.

By | 2019-07-18T18:56:00+00:00 July 18th, 2019|Categories: Nursing careers and jobs, Nursing education|6 Comments

About the Author:

Lisette Hilton
Lisette Hilton, president of Words Come Alive, has been a freelance health reporter for more than 25 years and loves her job.


  1. Avatar
    Peggy Nulsen July 28, 2019 at 3:02 am - Reply

    I am so glad to see this issue become more broadly discussed in professional arenas. As a recovering alcoholic with 32 years of sobriety a and a recently retired RN, I had very little support in my inpatient setting at the time I needed it most. If not for a caring, compassionate and knowledgable Director of Nursing, I may have missed my golden opportunity for in patient rehab, which set me on a course of recovery; from the day I walked into rehab to the present day I have been blessed with continuous sobriety. Very few people knew why I was absent for a month. I sidestepped inquiries without lying ( a strict no-no). I think many of my nursing colleagues would have been supportive if the culture surrounding impaired health care professionals was more open as it is today. It is possible to recover your self-respect, your professional passion and become a positive role model for others. All you have to do is ask.

  2. Avatar
    Dolores Turnwall July 29, 2019 at 7:07 pm - Reply

    “Opiate diversion”! ? Oh please 🙄. Stop sugar coating and all it what it is ….. stealing , pilfering.

  3. Avatar
    Rhonda Jean Munholland July 30, 2019 at 3:17 pm - Reply

    I am still recovering and it is an everyday process. I was addicted to oxy and a few other drugs I stole from my work at Morrow County.
    I realize that I am someone who must fight the addiction one day at a time. I am so happy that ONB and Ohio Health has the confidence in me and that I can recover from this and become the Respiratory Therapist I once was.
    Also my boss Leslie Dye and fellow nurses have made me realize how important the system is. It works and I know I am a better person for it !
    An extra thank you to my friend Missy whom has been there from the start.

  4. Avatar
    Nancy G July 30, 2019 at 10:33 pm - Reply

    God Bless each and everyone of you!! You all have shown us just how strong you really are and always have been by overcoming probably the most difficult of tasks imaginable even during your darkest and lowest times in your lives. I
    would love to know how to help an alcoholic who hasnt hit bottom yet and denies he has a problem. Any and all suggestions welcome. I am trying to save my son’s life. Thank you.

  5. Avatar
    Nancy VonOpitz July 31, 2019 at 4:00 pm - Reply

    I worked at a methadone treatment center and we had patients who were nurses. This treatment facility focused on providing methadone narcotic but not holding the patients accountable for their behavior. So in a nut shell they are providing drugs for addicts and only concern is money. How shocking more importantly how sad.

  6. Avatar
    John gargan August 4, 2019 at 4:54 am - Reply

    I really respect anyone who has insight into thier own issues
    Not something they teach us in our training. I never had any personal issues with Opioids however, while working under a pre-deim contract, the physician, who was also the owner of the office and my supervising physician was according to the DEA and federal agents prescribing to patients who had no medical reason for Opioids. My contract , which eS written up by their attorney identified that I was not a pain management specialist and I was not to make any pain management decisions. I was to see follow up patients o ly and as long as these patient were doing well. Had no complaints. Urine toxicity screens were good and radiographic tests were UTD a BBCd on the chart I was to re-write (not write) for the meds in the POC. I even went so far as to ask one of the states special agents if my working there would be problem and I was told no. Well, when the DEA decided to bust him they indicted me for conspiracy. Which i had no idea of any of it and he never prescribed outside of standard of care on dosage or amount and all MRI reports showed evidence of needing pain management but I am being held on issues of what I should have done. And even if he had done something wrong and I say it, who would I complain to? It was his office, his patients, he was the specialist, I was a per-denim contracted employee acting under a legal contract. And, the physician, nurse manager, office administrator were all placed on house arrest and told they cannot work at all. They let me out on ab I BOND, I only have to check in once a month, no restrictions on my practice license, only told not to write any more Opioids until the case is over. However, they did turn my name into a national board of review which of course Meducaid immediately excluded me from seeing any patients covered under them, I cannot write any prescriptions, no ordering of any diagnostic test and no billing either by me or anyone I might be employed by. So sure I can work but after hearing all of that, would anyone out there like to hire me? The bottom line is you have to be careful of every one and everything. Because this ain’t Kansas anyone

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