Given the ongoing pandemic and consequent increased demands placed upon the nation’s healthcare professionals—doctors, nurses and all medical caregivers—it should come as no surprise many of their ranks have struggled with issues of substance abuse or addiction. In an attempt to cope with or self-medicate from the additional COVID-related stresses, responsibilities, physical pain, sleep deprivation and fatigue, as well as their near-constant exposure to illness, trauma and death, countless healthcare workers have turned to alcohol or drugs, only to find themselves caught in the grip of a chemical dependency.
Research has indicated healthcare professionals have a substance abuse rate similar to that of the general public – between 10%-15% of all doctors and nurses in the U.S. end up abusing alcohol or drugs at some time during their career. (The rates of abuse of some narcotics—opioids and benzodiazepines—have been shown to be higher in healthcare workers than the general population, however.)
But when healthcare workers have a substance use disorder, it doesn’t just create problems, chaos and suffering in their lives: it affects their patients, as well.
The most recently gathered data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) points out that at least 100,000 medical professionals struggle with a substance abuse disorder annually in the United States. The extensive nature of the problem of substance abuse and chemical dependency in doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers is worrisome, especially due to the potential danger to the health and welfare of patients across the country.
Those healthcare providers who’re impaired by alcohol and/or drugs, including those who may be affected by withdrawal symptoms, are significantly more prone to error, including the costly, even deadly, mistakes that result in incorrect dispensing of medication, blown surgeries and mistaken diagnoses.
Beyond these concerns, there is also the matter of substance-abusing doctors and nurses having access to prescription drugs. The fact is, their ability to steal (commonly known as “diverting”) their patients’ drugs—especially opioids and other narcotic medications—has a direct negative effect on them; the patient is made vulnerable to the prospect of not having the amount of medication they necessitate or they’re unable to get their medication at the proper time.
Beyond the negative consequences to patients from healthcare workers’ drug diversion and the raised risk of making harmful, potentially life-threatening errors, doctors and nurses with substance use disorders create an indirect negative effect on their patients’ well-being. Recent research has found a link between how patients perceive the wellness of their physicians (through indicators such as demeanor and physical appearance) and the care they receive. A negative view of a patient hurts the doctor-patient relationship, and hinders patient actions, such as following care plans.
The bottom line? Healthcare professionals who struggle with substance abuse or chemical dependency pose a high risk to their patients, as well as to themselves. And given the powerful sway of the disease of addiction on the thinking and behavior of the afflicted person, eventually someone is either hurt by their mistakes or someone observes such and reports it, often enough resulting in a malpractice lawsuit – which hurts the hospital, medical clinic or company for whom the medical professional is working.
At such time, some of the consequences facing a healthcare professional include:
- Legal issues (lawsuits, arrests)
- Financial burden (lost pay during suspension from work)
- Professional disciplinary actions (loss of license, loss of career)
- Discredited reputation among clients, colleagues, family and friends
The ”good news” is that help is available for those seeking assistance in recovering from a substance use disorder, and statistics indicate addiction treatment for healthcare professionals has a high rate of success. More than 7 out of 10 are still clean/sober, licensed to practice and employed in the medical field after 5 years of completing treatment.
The most important step in recovery is the first one: reaching out and asking for help. If you or a healthcare professional you know are struggling with substance abuse or addiction, contact a local treatment center that specializes in helping healthcare workers recover and find a new way of life.
 Baldisseri, M.R. (2013). Impaired healthcare professional. Critical Care Medicine, 35(2 Suppl), S106-S116.
 Merlo, L., & Gold, M. (2008). Prescription opioid abuse and dependence among physicians: hypotheses and treatment. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 16(3), 181–94; Merlo, L. J., Trejo-Lopez, J., Conwell, T., & Rivenbark, J. (2013). Patterns of substance abuse initiation among healthcare professionals in recovery. The American Journal on Addictions, 22, 605–612.
 Bush, D.M., & Lipari, R.N. (2015). Substance Use and Substance Use Disorder by Industry. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. Rockville, MD.
 Lemaire, J.B., Ewashina, D., Polachek, A.J., Dixit, J., & Yiu, V. (2018). Understanding how patients perceive physician wellness and its links to patient care: A qualitative study. PLoS One, 13(5), e0196888.