The men and women who work in the healthcare industry as physicians are often mistakenly perceived as being “superhuman” by their patients and the community, in general, especially when it comes to being exemplary models of physical and mental health. But the same anxiety, stress, illness and addiction that affects everyone else can afflict medical doctors in equal measure.
Indeed, it can be hard to imagine the weighty, “life or death” decisions many doctors must make, oftentimes on a daily basis, in the course of caring for their patients. The enormous responsibilities and demands placed upon medical professionals can bring on far-reaching dimensions of stress that can contribute to their using alcohol or drugs to “deal with” the anxiety. And because of having greater access to addictive pharmaceutical drugs, physicians can readily enough become dependent upon them without intending to.
According to the National Institutes of Health, it’s estimated that “approximately 10% to 15% of all healthcare professionals will misuse drugs or alcohol at some time during their career.”
As for what constitutes addiction (a.k.a., having a “substance use disorder”), the American Society of Addiction Medicine defines it as “a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.”
Most medical organizations agree this disease can affect anyone, regardless of race, age, education, socio-economic standing or career. And that means doctors, too, regardless of their universally being held in high esteem, can fall into the life-damaging stranglehold of addiction.
In addition to the debilitating, oftentimes devastating consequences addiction can have on their personal lives, when those who work in the field of medicine are afflicted by the disease of addiction, their capacity to practice their normal healthcare tasks can be severely affected, to the point of putting their patients at risk. Whether they know it or not, a doctor with a chemical dependency is like the proverbial “ticking time-bomb” that at any moment can cause havoc and disastrous outcomes in their own and other people’s lives.
Fortunately, specialized help for impaired physicians is available. According to an article by Dr. Marie Baldisserie, published in Critical Care Medicine, “Institutional, local and statewide impaired-physician programs are now available for the active treatment and rehabilitation of impaired healthcare professionals. Many of these programs are also designed to assist the clinician with reentry into clinical practice. Rarely is punitive action taken when the healthcare provider undergoes successful treatment and ongoing follow-up management. Overall recovery rates for impaired healthcare professionals seem to be higher compared with other groups, particularly with intensive inpatient management and subsequent follow-up care.”
Across the country, 47 states have developed physician health programs (PHPs) and/or addiction treatment programs specifically for physicians and medical professionals who want to recover from addiction and return to their normal lives and careers. The Federation of State Physician Health Programs states: “Member programs provide confidential assessment, referral to treatment, resources and monitoring for physicians/healthcare professionals, and those in training who may be at risk of impairment from substance use disorders, mental illness and other health conditions. When indicated, ongoing health monitoring by a PHP provides trusted accountability that supports successful continuation or return to practice. Most importantly, state member programs provide a confidential, therapeutic alternative to discipline and have the support of organized medicine in their state.”
Approved Local treatment centers that work with PHPs recognize the passion doctors have for their profession and develop physician-tailored programs to fit the needs of healthcare professionals seeking recovery from addiction.
Making use of medical detox when indicated, evidence-based recovery practices, comprehensive rehabilitation and relapse prevention, these specialized treatment programs provide doctors seeking effective addiction recovery with the care and expertise necessary to assist them in the fulfillment of their recovery goals and help get them back into their practices as swiftly as possible.
It should be noted that research indicates treatment for physicians has an impressive rate of success. One long-term study followed 904 physicians from 16 state physician health programs. The program included drug and alcohol monitoring, 12-Step and mandated peer support groups. The results showed that after five years, 78% of the participants had no positive tests for drugs or alcohol, with nearly all who desired to do so returning to practicing medicine without relapse.
The resources to support physicians seeking recovery from addiction are available. The most important step to take is simple: reach out for help to a local treatment center allied with a state PHP program.
 Home (fsphp.org)
 Hicks, MD, R. (2014, March). “Social Factors Predict Long-Term Recovery and Inﬂuence United Kingdom’s Treatment Programs.” The Missouri Physician Lifeline, p. 3.