Safety issues have long been a concern for all types of nurses, but providers at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital say they are particularly worried about illegal drug use inside the facility. One nurse is now in the hospital after being exposed to narcotic smoke on the job. The staff said she fainted and seemed to go into a panic attack after inhaling the contaminated air.
Experts say it’s difficult to obtain a second-hand high from the smoke of narcotics, but exposure to fentanyl and methamphetamine can trigger a stress response in the body. Hospitals and ERs across the country are seeing a spike in the number of patients using illegal drugs.
One staff member confirmed that the nurse was transported to the ER and later admitted to the hospital after she walked into a patient’s room full of drug smoke. SF General Hospital recently announced it is a drug-free facility, but nurses quickly disputed the claim.
“Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital (ZSFG) is a drug-free campus. We do not condone or tolerate the use of illegal drugs on our campus by anyone,” said the statement.
But patient drug use remains a recurring problem. Many providers said they don’t have the resources to properly enforce the facility’s drug policies. Some nurses also said they are afraid of being sued for facilitating a patient’s death if they relapse after leaving the hospital. Others say confiscating a patient’s drugs can make them less trusting of the medical system.
Geoffrey Grier, a recovery activist who advises on behavioral health policy, said the incident points to a growing trend across the healthcare industry.
“Nurses are underpaid and overworked,” Grier said. “It’s part of a larger picture.”
The hospital acknowledged the incident and said it filed a report with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The San Francisco Standard also obtained an email sent by a nurse supervisor to the hospital staff that says the hospital recently created a task force to help deal with the ongoing drug use problem. The group had its first meeting on March 17. Nurses are now encouraged to wear N95 face masks, gloves, and other protective equipment when encountering “exposure to a toxic or irritating material or substance of any kind.”
But the staff says that does little to solve the underlying problem of patients using drugs. They added that the facility has no clear means of enforcing the drug-free policy.
“I think that we should definitely be able to meet people where they’re at and give them the help that they can get,” said a nurse at General Hospital, who didn’t want to be named for fear of retaliation. “But there’s been so much finger-pointing at the nurses and we’re all tired of it.”
Confiscating drugs from a patient can also raise complex ethical concerns. Patients are “offered the option to dispose of any substances or substance use supplies,” according to the hospital, but staffers don’t have the authority to search patients or confiscate their property.
The hospital also instructs nurses to limit encounters with law enforcement to prioritize the treatment of patients suffering from addiction. The staff should only contact the authorities if the patient’s drug use is a harm to themselves or others.
After the recent incident, the hospital said it is looking into possibly revising its drug policies regarding clinical interventions. But the nurses said they don’t believe the administrators will come up with an effective solution any time soon.
“They weren’t going to change anything until people started really speaking up,” a nurse said. “They are trying to say that it shouldn’t be this stressful.”