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Protecting Nurses from Contact with Toxic Cancer Drugs

 |  By Alexandra Wilson Pecci  
   September 16, 2014

As the single largest group of oncology care providers, RNs face a disproportionate risk of exposure to hazardous drugs. It's up to nurse leaders to create and promote a culture of safety.

Nurses are often described as being on the "front lines" of healthcare, a phrase that evokes potentially dangerous fields like the military or law enforcement.


Christopher Friese PhD, RN, FAAN

That description might seem overly dramatic until you stop to consider what registered nurses might encounter in the course of their workday (or night): Angry, emotional, and sometimes violent patients; risks of injury from needle-sticks or lifting too-heavy patients; the ever-present risk of illness; and the intimacy of caring for and comforting the sick and the dying in ways that few others do.

So it's no exaggeration to say that America's more than 3.1 million RNs are certainly on the front lines of healthcare. And it should come as no surprise that one particular group of nurses, oncology care providers, face a disproportionate risk of exposure to hazardous cancer drugs.

"We've known for about four decades that drugs that are used to treat cancer… are potentially harmful to those who handle them," says Christopher Friese, PhD, RN, FAAN, a University of Michigan School of Nursing assistant professor and member of U-M's Comprehensive Cancer Center and Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.

Although the dangers are known to exist, experts aren't sure how much exposure is too much, and "there can be both short-term and long-term side effects," Friese told me.

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Alexandra Wilson Pecci is an editor for HealthLeaders.

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