Addiction in the Field of Nursing: Facing the Challenges – PART ONE – “The Lay of the Land”
[Note to Reader: This is “Part One” of a 2-part blog-post. “Part Two” will be published shortly.]
On the face of it, one might not suspect that the nurse administering medical care to you at a hospital, doctor’s office or medical clinic has a substance use disorder of any kind. However, the statistics paint a different picture altogether. According to Trinkoff et al., “Nurses are especially vulnerable to addiction to prescription drugs because of work-related stress and easy access to drugs.”
Indeed, the disease of addiction/substance use disorder does not discriminate – healthcare professionals (including nurses) are just as prone as anyone to be afflicted. A study published in Journal of Nursing Management found that substance abuse disorders among nurses had a similar prevalence as the general population (approximately 10%).
Not surprisingly, the most common work-related factors associated with substance abuse in nurses include:
- working a night shift or rotating shifts;
- critical care work;
- excessive overtime;
- musculoskeletal injuries and pain; and,
- knowledge of medications.
Per research conducted in 2009 on healthcare professionals’ family histories of alcohol or drug problems, nurses were reported to have reported a higher rate of substance use disorders in their families than other groups of health care professionals.
Besides having a family history of alcoholism or substance abuse, another contributing factor is the insufficient attention given to addiction in nursing schools, colleges and continuing education programs, the result being the persistence of stereotypes and stigmas. As nurse training centers and institutions of higher learning begin to clarify and emphasize that addiction/substance use disorder is an illness, the road forward for addicted nurses will be made easier to seek help voluntarily.
It should be noted, all healthcare professionals—including nurses, and especially addicted nurses themselves—have an ethical responsibility to address the challenges of addiction where they practice and to take care of themselves, which naturally will ensure the protection and safety of their patients.
Patricia Maher-Brisen, MSN, APRN, BC, has pointed out the importance of medical staff employers having and demonstrating greater consideration and discernment when evaluating and making decisions about cases involving nurses and substance use arise. “Staff nurses and nurse managers who understand that addiction is a progressive, treatable illness are likely to show compassion without enabling the addiction. Ideally, administrators will offer to help the addicted nurse, rather than respond with termination.”
When a nurse finds herself/himself struggling with a substance use disorder, it can be highly significant to their finding recovery if the awareness has been instilled in advance that she or he is not alone. As Maher-Brisen makes clear, “Help is available through state nurses’ associations and elsewhere, and professional disciplinary action may be avoidable. But before nurses can ask for and accept help, they must understand that they have an illness that affects their ability to practice safely and can put their license in jeopardy.”
In “Part Two” of this 2-part blog-post, we’ll review what are some key identifiers of nurses having issues with substance use, as well as what can be done to help them find their way to effective addiction treatment, while preserving the greatest likelihood of their maintaining their nursing licensure and credentials and avoiding punishment or legal troubles.
 Trinkoff AM, et al. “Workplace access, negative proscriptions, job strain, and substance use in registered nurses.” Nurs Res 2000;49(2):83-90.
 Kuryk, Diane. “Substance use disorders among registered nurses: prevalence, risks and perceptions in a disciplinary jurisdiction.” Journal of Nursing Management. Jan. 2015.