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Serial Murder by Healthcare Professionals

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The prosecution of Charles Cullen, a nurse who killed at least 40 patients over a 16-year period, highlights the need to better understand the phenomenon of serial murder by healthcare professionals. The authors conducted a LexisNexis® search which yielded 90 criminal prosecutions of healthcare providers that met inclusion criteria for serial murder of patients. In addition we reviewed epidemiologic studies, toxicology evidence, and court transcripts, to provide data on healthcare professionals who have been prosecuted between 1970 and 2006. Fifty-four of the 90 have been convicted; 45 for serial murder, four for attempted murder, and five pled guilty to lesser charges. Twenty-four more have been indicted and are either awaiting trial or the outcome has not been published. The other 12 prosecutions had a variety of legal outcomes. Injection was the main method used by healthcare killers followed by suffocation, poisoning, and tampering with equipment. Prosecutions were reported from 20 countries with 40% taking place in the United States. Nursing personnel comprised 86% of the healthcare providers prosecuted; physicians 12%, and 2% were allied health professionals. The number of patient deaths that resulted in a murder conviction is 317 and the number of suspicious patient deaths attributed to the 54 convicted caregivers is 2113. These numbers are disturbing and demand that systemic changes in tracking adverse patient incidents associated with presence of a specific healthcare provider be implemented. Hiring practices must shift away from preventing wrongful discharge or denial of employment lawsuits to protecting patients from employees who kill.
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Keywords: assault; epidemics; forensic science; healthcare professionals; homicide; murder; nurse; serial murder

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: College of Health and Human Services, California State University, Los Angeles, CA. 2: Medsphere Systems, Aliso Viejo, CA. 3: Author, Assen, Holland. 4: Department of Chemistry, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S3 7HF, U.K. 5: School of Law, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA. 6: School of Nursing, San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA.

Publication date: 2006-11-01

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