Given medical professionals—surgeons, doctors, nurses, etc.—have dedicated huge amounts of schooling, training time and effort to prepare for their jobs and then go on to dedicate their lives to helping others recover their health and wellness, their very lives in some cases, it may seem paradoxical there would be such high percentages of alcoholism and substance abuse in the healthcare field.
Indeed, many healthcare professionals find themselves afflicted with a substance use disorder involving alcohol and/or drugs. In particular, medical professionals with alcohol dependency issues are an all too common—and life-endangering—combination.
Research studies have found between 10 and 12 percent of medical professionals will develop a substance use disorder of some kind during their careers, including at least 1 in 10 physicians, and 1 in 5 nurses. Two points bear noting: 1) These rates of substance abuse in healthcare workers are higher than the general population; and 2) It’s quite likely they’re even higher, since it’s well known in the field that medical professionals underreport substance abuse disorders.
What’s also troubling is the fact that patients are at a much higher risk of injury or other forms of malpractice when doctors, surgeons and nurses are under the influence of alcohol or struggling with an alcohol dependency.
Examining the question of why medical professionals have a higher rate of alcohol and drug abuse—even with the many risks involved—one can see there are a number of influential factors involved.
For one, medical professionals often work long hours and multiple shifts, opening the door for the challenges of significantly decreased energy levels and increased, prolonged stress. In such work environments, taking a quick and easy mood elevator like alcohol or a pharmaceutical drug can seem to “provide what’s needed” perfectly.
Another aspect of a healthcare professional’s job—caring about patients and connecting with them—can end up increasing the anxiety and emotional stress when they’re unable to help them out of their illness and/or when they pass away. Given this phenomenon occurs much more frequently for doctors and nurses than it does with the general population, it’s understandable they have more of a toll taken on them and consequently they may turn to alcohol or start self-medicating with drugs to cope.
The ease of access to prescription drugs can be an increased temptation, not just for coping or “handling the stress’ of their work-related challenges, but also simply for their recreational use. Some drugs (like opioids or benzodiazepines, for example) are used by medical professionals to “relax” after (or even during) long or multiple shifts, while stimulants (e.g., amphetamines) can provide a boost to their energy in order to address any shift burnout they may be experiencing.
The problems associated with doctors or nurses turning to alcohol- or drug-based “solutions” are numerous, including:
- Impairment on the job, inability to perform necessary tasks sufficiently well, including properly caring for each and every patient
- Misdiagnosing health conditions
- Ability to maintain appropriate level of focus
- Contamination or infection
- Canceled appointments
- Incorrectly filled out paperwork
- Deferred or stolen prescription medicines (frequently opioids) that don’t get to patients who need them, increasing their risk of illness or death
- Loss of medical licensure and ability to practice
- Being sued for malpractice
It may be difficult to identify signs of alcoholism in medical professionals. Since medical professionals who abuse alcohol and/or drugs often can mask their dependency-based behaviors, it can prove challenging for friends and family to identify a problem because of their ability to hide their condition.
Still, here are some signs that may be indicators of a healthcare professional having a substance use disorder:
- Frequent absences or breaks during a shift
- Alcohol on breath
- Tardiness to work
- Slurred speech
- Hidden bottles
- Frequent hangovers
- Mood swings/ irritability
- Poor hygiene
- Aggression/ violent behavior (at work or domestic disturbances)
If you or any medical professional you know are demonstrating any of the above, it’s time to contact a local addictions treatment facility in order to learn about treatment options. Treatment professionals, including those who can provide medically-assisted detox, can help end the cycle of alcohol and/or drug abuse and dependency, while simultaneously increasing the likelihood of preserving your or their career and the lives of their patients.