The fact is, the current COVID-19 pandemic has amped up the degree of stress throughout society to unprecedented levels. Nowhere can this heightened pressure and strain be found more challenging than in the realm of healthcare providers. Indeed, the added coronavirus-fueled demands placed on doctors and nurses (as well as other hospital and medical center staff members) only serve to extend and stretch their already long work hours and typically stressful conditions. And like the rest of society, many doctors also turn to substances—especially alcohol (see statistics below)—to “help them cope” and in many instances, self-medicate.
For those readers who find themselves nodding their heads in recognition of their possibly turning to alcohol too frequently or having an alcohol abuse or dependence problem, you are actually not alone! The statistics below regarding alcohol and substance abuse among physicians—including its association with burnout, depression, suicidal ideations, lower quality of life and lower career satisfaction—bear this out.
According to a research study of physicians and substance abuse, doctors’ rates of abuse are similar to the general population – in that, between 10%-15% of all doctors in the United States go through substance* abuse (*: includes alcohol and any other prescribed, non-prescribed or illegal substance) at some point during their career.
Further, the results of a large-scale study on substance use disorders in U.S. physicians indicate alcohol is the most commonly abused substance among doctors in the United States.
It should be noted that data drawn from the above mentioned large-sample study showed nearly 13% of male physicians and 22% of female physicians abuse alcohol, which are much higher rates than the 6.2% of the overall U.S. population aged 18 years or older with an alcohol use disorder.
Taken on their own, these numbers indicate the importance of having doctors recovery programs and physician health programs to address the special needs of healthcare professionals seeking recovery from alcohol abuse. Adding the extra burdens and pressures of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic can only underscore the value of such programs.
According to Dr. Michael Kaliszewski, “Most states have an independent physician health program that provides advocacy and monitoring services and directs physicians to drug, alcohol, and mental health treatment. Physician health programs ensure doctors receive the treatment and long-term monitoring required to safely return to medical practice.”
And the “good news” is that a high percentage of physicians who seek help with alcohol abuse disorder do recover! Indeed, a national survey found the effectiveness of substance abuse treatment programs for doctors (aka “physician health programs”) are more successful than alternative treatment options – including the following survey results:
- 78% of PHP participants remain substance free, with no relapse, at the 5-year follow-up
- 71% of PHP participants retained their license and employment at the 5-year follow-up
The main takeaway here is this: by getting help from a physicians health program or impaired professionals treatment program, doctors experiencing alcohol dependence or abuse can find recovery and freedom, as well as continue practicing within their medical profession. According to McLellan, et al, “Such programs seem to provide an appropriate combination of treatment, support, and sanctions to manage addiction among physicians effectively.”
 Baldisseri, M.R. (2013). Impaired healthcare professional. Critical Care Medicine, 35(2 Suppl), S106-S116.
 Oreskovich, M.R., Shanafelt, T., Dyrbye, L.N., Tan, L., Sotile, W., Satele, D., … & Boone, S. (2015). The prevalence of substance use disorders in American physicians. The American Journal on Addictions, 24(1), 30-8.
 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2019). Alcohol Facts and Statistics.
 DuPont, R.L., McLellan, A.T., Carr, G., Gendel, M., & Skipper, G.E. (2009). How are addicted physicians treated? A national survey of Physician Health Programs. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 37(1), 1-7.