Hospital serial killers a big threat

Researchers have linked more than 2,100 suspicious deaths worldwide to 54 doctors and nurses convicted of serial murder or lesser charges since 1970 in a new study published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences.

Kenneth Kizer, a co-author of the report and former head of the Veterans Health Administration, says it's easy to see how serial killers continue to find work: Hospitals rarely share their suspicions when their staff look for jobs elsewhere, because they fear lawsuits from former employees who say negative job references damaged their reputations.

But the magnitude of the problem suggests the United States needs a federal law to protect hospitals everywhere when they report suspicious behaviour. Among Kizer's suggestions:

  • Executives should track patient deaths and illnesses, which could allow them to quickly notice telltale trends.
  • Hospital officials should investigate the "root causes" of all these deaths, Leape says; that could help hospitals spot ordinary safety problems in addition to crimes.
  • They also should preserve evidence, such as syringes and the tubing used to give intravenous medications, taking the same precautions that police might at a crime scene, so vital evidence is not thrown out.

    In addition, Lucian Leape, adjunct professor at the Harvard University School of Public Health, says storing potentially lethal drugs in single does could help. Computerised drug-dispensing machines, used in many hospitals, reduce errors and restrict the number of people who can access dangerous medications.

    Taking such precautions can prevent not only murder, but also the everyday mistakes that harm patients, says Leape. "We know how to prevent this. Theoretically, this kind of stuff should be impossible from now on," he says.

    Source: Liz Szabo, Hospital serial killers are big threat, study says, USA Today, December 13, 2006.

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    FMF Policy Bulletin/ 19 December 2006
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