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Nurses played a critical role in identifying the theft of more than 11,000 tablets from residents in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, according to a new study. 

But their fellow nurses were the most frequent thieves, research published this month in the Journal of Applied Gerontology found. The research looked at 107 investigations filed with the Minnesota Department of Health from 2013 to 2021 and found that a total of 11,328.5 tablets of medicine were taken from 368 residents of 104 long-term care facilities.

In 97.5% of the cases, the drug stolen was a controlled substance – most commonly a Schedule II narcotic and usually opioids, the report said.

“The findings could inform efforts at different levels aimed at strengthening the security of controlled substances and the response to their theft in long-term care homes,” the authors, led by Eilon Caspi, PhD, a gerontologist and dementia behavior specialist at the University of Connecticut, wrote

Additionally since many pill thefts took place over significant time periods – the average duration of the thefts was 56 days – the authors urge decision makers to “ensure that adequate policies are place and implemented to increase early detection and strengthen internal and external reporting and investigations.” 

The report cautioned that the total drug diversion activity is most likely higher than reported since 12% of the investigations did not include a specific number of drugs taken. Caspi also cautioned that there are significantly more assisted facilities in Minnesota than nursing homes so “caution is necessary in interpreting these findings.”

Nursing homes traditionally are subject to more stringent federal regulations regarding drug management, while assisted living facility regulations may vary from state to state.

“Thefts of [controlled substances] are believed by experts to be underdetected and underreported,” the report noted. 

Other report findings include: 

  • 49% of identified thieves were nurses;
  • 15% of the stolen drugs were from 160 residents in the same 33 nursing homes; 
  • 87.5% of the cases in which a nurse was a perpetrator happened in a nursing home compared to 32% of nurse-involved thefts at assisted living centers;
  • Surveillance cameras in a medicine room or cart, a victim’s bedroom, or a public space played a role in 26% of the cases to confirm a theft took place. 

While pill thefts have been studied in other healthcare settings, the authors note that research on such thefts in long-term care homes is not as well known. The “exploratory study” hopes to bridge that gap. The authors also hope their findings will be a call-to-action to address this form of elder abuse.

For more context on this story, visit McKnight’s Senior Living.