According to an article published in Hospital Employee Health, 10-15% of nurses have struggled with a substance use disorder sometime during their career—often associated with diversion of their patients’ prescription drugs—and many have lost their jobs, license and standing within the medical community.
Clearly, an impaired nurse can jeopardize the health and well-being of his/her patients, hence the emphasis placed on acquiring sufficient education, practice and expertise prior to working in the public sphere, as well as the continual scrutiny and accountability placed upon all nurses—as is the case with all healthcare professionals throughout the nation.
However, given nurses are, after all, human beings with the same capacity for illness and affliction as anyone else in the population, state nursing boards and state-run professionals resource networks (PRN) exist to help them get their lives, freedoms and careers back.
Because even when a nurse has become chemically dependent (on drugs or alcohol) and is living a life filled with obsession, compulsion, secrecy and shame, she or he is still a person who once sought to care for others.
Fortunately, PRNs are geared to assist them in getting treatment for substance use disorders, and whenever possible, once a foundation in recovery has been established, restoring their careers as healthcare workers who can safely and successfully help others.
John Furman, PhD, MSN, CIC, COHN-S, director of Washington Health Professional Services, stated, “The point is that all healthcare professionals should have the right to have their legitimate medical condition treated. And if it can be managed successfully, they should have the right to re-enter the workforce and continue their profession just as anyone else would.”
Certainly, any and all matters of public safety need to be addressed in every case of an impaired nurse being referred to a PRN. And when he or she is unable to make and maintain the required changes, or if they continue acting in such a way as to put their patients at risk, their licensure may be revoked, in some cases permanently, by their state’s nursing board or commission.
Getting addiction treatment is looked upon [by PRN] as a non-disciplinary approach to helping chemically dependent nurses recover and, when ready, resume work in the field. Currently, treatment for chemical dependency utilizes evidence-based medical and therapeutic practices to restore both physiological and psycho-emotive health and wellness to the impaired healthcare worker. Typically, a treatment protocol includes medically-assisted detox, intensive education about addiction and recovery, both individual and group therapeutic counseling, behavior modification therapies, and recovery network building.
When a nurse successfully completes treatment, the state PRN immediately sees to it she or he begins following a highly structured, contract-based substance abuse monitoring program for healthcare professionals with substance use disorders.
If nurses follow through with their agreed-upon PRN protocol following treatment, they can maintain their ability to re-enter the medical field and continue nursing again, ensured of the confidentiality and privacy of their having been in addiction treatment. As Furman says, “No formal action [will be] taken against their license and the fact that they are in the program is non-public in nature. This is never reflected as part of a public document.”
As they return to work in the field, nurses who’ve graduated from treatment are informed of the various conditions they need to meet (with relapse prompting automatic license revocation), including:
- worksite restrictions, e.g., no home health work
- will not have multiple employers
- limits on overtime and shift rotation,
- will not float from unit to unit
- no access to controlled substances for at least 12 months.
In the state of Washington, Furman says, the good news is the program graduation rate is generally high—between 65-70% “We feel pretty good about that, and also the nurses are in the program for a minimum of five years. The standard throughout the nation is at least three to five years.”
He concludes that, though it may appear counterintuitive, since giving medicine is integral to a nurse’s profession, “The lack of education about drugs and addiction is still a major contributor to the problem.”
 Evans, Gary. “For Addicted Nurses, A Way Back to the Bedside.” Hospital Employee Health. Jan. 1, 2017