Dr. Jeff Baldwin, an emeritus professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice and Science at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy, knows a thing or two about pharmacists who develop substance use disorders (a.k.a., chemical dependency, addiction to drugs and/or alcohol). He co-authored two chapters of the 2018 ASHP (American Society of Health-Systems Pharmacists) published book, The Pharmacist’s Guide to Opioid Use Disorders.
Citing past research, he writes, “One in 10 pharmacy professionals will suffer from a substance use disorder (SUD) at some point during their lifetime. SUD remains the most serious illness to afflict pharmacists in their first 15 years of practice.”
Even with all of their education and specialized training, pharmacists must inevitably address some of the identified risk factors for SUDs, among them the often-held erroneous beliefs that: 1) one’s informed understanding about pharmaceutical medicines will keep them from developing a SUD; and 2) that they can harmlessly self-medicate.
Baldwin cautions, “Therefore, the critical question for hospitals and pharmacies is not, will some pharmacists develop a SUD, but what to do when it happens.”
A survey by the American College of Healthcare Executives concluded that among the top five concerns of hospital CEOs is the need to address behavioral health and addiction issues. One of the problems, however, is that treatment of addicted pharmacists varies from hospital to hospital, which “has led to suboptimal treatment and recovery strategies and a lack of transparency among employers.”
Baldwin points out it’s imperative that the profession do “a much better job at recognizing and intervening to get help for practitioners with SUDs. If they start taking a medication associated with SUDs, it will probably be what’s readily available—and pharmacists working decentralized on units can access medications there.”
Drug diversion, as it is known in the industry, is “the transfer of any legally prescribed controlled substance from the individual for whom it was prescribed to another person for any illicit use,” in this case the chemically dependent pharmacist.
Jim Schiffer, an attorney and continuing education presenter at the Arnold & Marie Schwartz College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences of Long Island University, affirms, “We have to clean up the pharmacy profession regarding addiction. Hospital administrators should act responsibly and ethically, by reporting addicted pharmacists who refuse help to the appropriate state pharmacy boards and, if they don’t get treated, be honest about these individuals’ job performance when asked for references.”
Fortunately, the vast majority of states have governing bodies to guide the process of getting addicted pharmacists and other healthcare workers the treatment they need to establish a foundation in ongoing recovery. Brian Fingerson, RPh, director of Kentucky Professionals Recovery Network, states that treatment programs specifically designed to help health care professionals with addiction offer a combination of medication management, education about addiction and recovery, therapeutic counseling and group support, as well as sanctions where necessary, have been found to be highly successful.
In fact, a longitudinal study of professional healthcare workers in treatment showed nearly 80% of physicians who entered the programs were licensed and working in their fields after five years.
Given each addicted pharmacist’s case is unique, requiring a treatment protocol and follow-up care that suits the person’s specific needs, the optimum time needed to recover from the substance use disorder and regain one’s professional license will vary. According to Fingerson, “The Kentucky board views five years as standard, yet it accepts monitoring agencies’ input and could set longer terms for clients who relapse. Terms can range from three to 10 years.”
 Norton, M., et al. The Pharmacists Guide to Opioid Use Disorders. ASHP. 2018.
 “Top Issues Confronting Hospitals in 2018.” American College of Health Care Executives. 2018.
 Heller, A. “A Tale of Pharmacist Addiction.” Pharmacy Practice News. May 2019.