An “extraordinary” amount of powerful and addictive drugs were found to have been stolen by a pharmacist from two major public hospitals in Perth, Australia.

The report from an investigation launched by the watchdog, Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC) – in West Australia (WA), on Tuesday – said that lax controls and systemic problems regarding supply and management of the drugs were the cause.

The drugs were 18 grammes of hydromorphone and 12 grammes of oxycodone, both of which Australia classifies as Schedule 8 drugs – the highest kind. The investigation which was launched in February 2016, led to the conviction of the senior pharmacist Matthew Foster.

Hospital missed “obvious warning signs”

Foster was the University of Western Australia’s pharmacy student of the year in 2008 and following graduation, he began working at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital as an intern. Whilst there, he is said to have suffered from a family tragedy for which he took painkillers.

According to the report, by the time he moved to Fiona Stanley Hospital as a senior pharmacist, “he had a dark secret” which was his addiction to the medication. He had already begun stealing them whilst at the Gairdner hospital. Last February, he was charged after Western Australian Health told the CCC that it suspected theft within two hospitals.

The report also revealed that that the systems in place to manage and control Schedule 8 drugs were "inadequate and easy to circumvent" and that the Fiona Stanley Hospital failed to identify the “obvious warning signs” that malpractice was occurring. It was even given several warnings to improve security, but refused to act on any.

The CCC has brought to attention a number of areas with a security problem including after-hours access to pharmacy safes and poor management of registers.

Foster himself had “inside knowledge of the security systems”, the report said. This is the CCC’s fourth official investigation of this nature in six years.

Although the report concluded that Foster worked alone and was solely responsible for his actions, it did criticise Western Australia Health processes for allowing the offence to continue undetected for 14 months. It is believed he stole drugs on at least 130 occasions between December 2014 and February 2016.

Rick of corruption remains high

Pharmaceutical security has been reviewed a number of times over recent years: first by the CCC in 2011, then the Auditor-General in 2012, and finally the Coroner in 2013. Despite this, Foster’s case has raised “concerns about the broader serious misconduct and corruption risks at public hospitals,” according to the report.

The investigators found that some health records that were required by law to be presented were missing and therefore “inhibited the investigation and prosecution processes,” the report said. Additionally, these records were not reported as missing, despite the legal necessity to do so.

The CCC has made a number of recommendations to enhance hospital security such as compulsory audits for all after-hours dispensation and no access allowed for solitary employees outside business hours.

The Western Australian Health system has said it has “already reviewed and strengthened existing systems for managing these medicines across the WA public hospital system, and will examine and respond to all recommendations in the final report.” MIMS

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