It should go without saying that nurses who have an untreated substance use disorder (addiction to alcohol or drugs) are not only endangering themselves, but their patients, as well. One of the key words in this statement is “untreated.”
Why? Because untreated implies addiction is treatable. Indeed, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Addiction is a treatable disorder. Research on the science of addiction and the treatment of substance use disorders has led to the development of research-based methods that help people to stop using drugs and resume productive lives.”
Two points need noting here:
#1: Nurses are, much like the rest of us, susceptible to having a substance abuse order. The American Nurses Association reports that 300,000 nurses, or 1 in 10—the same rate as the general population—are addicted to alcohol or drugs.
#2: Also similar to any other profession, if a nurse seeks and completes treatment, and then continues to maintain a daily program of recovery, their lives can be restored and their careers resumed.
And although it’s acknowledged in the field of addiction medicine that a ‘cure’ for substance use disorders does not currently exist, it is possible to recover and maintain the healthy, positive results obtainable from treatment. One of NIDA’s publications states, “Like other chronic diseases such as heart disease or asthma, treatment for drug addiction usually isn’t a cure. But addiction can be managed successfully. Treatment enables people to counteract addiction’s disruptive effects on their brain and behavior and regain control of their lives.”
Fortunately, due to the increased stress and strain placed on healthcare workers created by the COVID-19 pandemic, more attention is being placed on assisting nurses who find themselves with substance abuse issues.
Maryann Alexander, the chief officer of nursing regulation for the national nursing boards’ council, “This is at the top of our radar. More states are becoming less punitive and are offering alternative programs. The entire focus is on public safety and on getting nurses with addiction the help that they need.”
When nurses do get the necessary support and treatment for their addiction, they’re ceasing to put their patients in harm’s way—see below—and paving the way for resuming their abilities to treat patients with the high standards and quality care each one deserves.
The fact is, when nurses abuse alcohol or drugs, the consequences can hurt both themselves and their patients. For example, a nurse with a substance use disorder might:
- Take frequent absences from work. This could create staffing shortages where not enough nurses are available to care for patients at a doctor’s office or medical facility.
- Not be physically present when patients need them. This could be because the nurses are occupied using drugs or alcohol and not in the office or on the floors of the hospital.
- Be too distracted by hangovers or drug cravings to focus on their patients’ needs.
- Forget to administer their patients’ medications, give them the wrong dosages, or give them the wrong medications entirely.
- Steal medications from their patients.
Given the importance of ensuring patient safety, state governments have set up appropriate means for addicted nurses to find help. By contacting the state board of nursing or state nursing associations, they’ll be directed to programs and healthcare-worker-specialized treatment centers to help them address their addictions. These programs can also offer assistance to nurses if they have legal or licensure issues as a result of their actions.
Statistics indicate a large majority of once-impaired nurses who complete treatment obtain good results. According to a 5-year study, once a nurse has successfully finished whatever treatment the state has recommended and she or he has demonstrated compliance with whatever state monitoring program is required, about 70% of nurses return to professional healthcare practice.
Although you may be (or know) a nurse with a substance use disorder, help is available! Given there are state-certified treatment centers that focus their efforts on assisting healthcare professionals, addicted nurses can seek the treatment they need to help both themselves and their patients.
 McLellan, A. T., Skipper, G. S., Campbell, M., & DuPont, R. L. (2008). Five-year outcomes in a cohort study of physicians treated for substance use disorders in the United States. BMJ, 337, 2038–2044.