A Culver City, Calif.-based company says it has developed a drug-testing procedure that is far more reliable than conventional urine tests.
But according to Chris Berka, a marketing vice president with the firm, Psychemedics, hospitals have been slow to embrace the technology, for two reasons. "First, many hospitals do not require pre-employment drug testing. Second, most hospitals have toxicology labs on the premises."
Currently only five hospitals have utilized Psychemedics' Radioimmunoassay of the Hair (RIAH) procedure. One of its clients-Parkview Memorial Hospital, Fort Wayne, Ind.-has acted as a middleman to various Fort Wayne industries, Berka said. The hospital charges a fee for collecting the hair sample, then sends it to Psychemedics for testing.
Another client, St. Francis Hospital in Wilmington, Del., is using the RIAH test for drug screenings of new employees.
When the hospital began testing two years ago, it considered adding a facility capable of drug analysis or sending prospective employees to a nearby drug-screening lab.
George Miller, director of human resources, said St. Francis decided "that in the '90s we don't want to be building buildings."
St. Francis also chose RIAH because of the convenience and accuracy of the procedure. "We bring them here and get them out in an hour," Miller said.
RIAH measures drug molecules that may reside in the hair after ingestion of cocaine, marijuana, opiates, methamphetamine or PCP.
A small sample of hair, 60 to 80 11/2-inch strands, is washed and then liquefied according to the patented RIAH method. Then the same chemistry used in urinalysis is applied to the hair sample.
The RIAH process, however, is more effective than urinalysis in identifying low levels of usage of these drugs, Berka said. It is two to three times more accurate than urinalysis in detecting marijuana use and five to 10 times more accurate in detecting use of cocaine, opiates, methamphetamine or PCP, she said.
And unlike urinalysis, RIAH offers a safety net. If a retest is necessary, a new sample can be easily collected, analyzed and compared with previous results. With the urinalysis, the subject can merely abstain from drug use prior to submitting a new sample.
Furthermore, with a urinalysis, chain of custody often becomes an argument. Technicians cannot go back to check if the container was mislabeled or if the urine sample was mixed up. Hair samples, on the other hand, have a traceable signature.
According to Psychemedics, test evasion on this procedure is nearly impossible. If any drug residue is present in the hair, it can't be washed out or affected by chemical processes such as coloring or perms.
The average cost of RIAH can range from $40 to $65 vs. the less expensive urinalysis, which runs $15 to $45. Berka said the price may come down over the next several years but won't be as low as that of urinalysis because of the complexity of the testing process.
"Hospital administrators who are concerned about maintaining a drug-free workplace will invest a little extra money to get a five to 10 times more effective test," Berka said.
A moderate up-front investment is worth the money an employer can save in the long run. For example, according to a study of U.S. Postal Service workers by the National Institutes of Health, one of six employees has a substance abuse problem. The worker's decreased productivity costs the employer an estimated $7,000 annually.
Psychemedics says the results of its RIAH test are so conclusive they have been admitted as courtroom evidence and evaluated in forensic studies.
The effectiveness of the process, which was developed through 10 years of research, has been confirmed by laboratories in Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States in more than 80 published reports.
Psychemedics was formed in 1987 and was the first laboratory to develop a patented process that tests hair rather than body fluids for detection of drug substances. Researchers Werner Baumgartner, M.D., and Annette Baumgartner, developed RIAH in the '80s with funding from the U.S. Navy, the National Institute of Justice and various other organizations.
Beyond merely producing a positive or negative result, RIAH can provide information on the amount of drugs in the system as well as trace a historic pattern of drug usage. Each half inch of hair in a sample represents about one month of growth. "Each little piece of hair, representing a month, is examined individually and then compared to determine if there has been an increase or decrease of drug usage," Berka said.