“Once we realize that imperfect understanding is the human condition, there is no shame in being wrong, only in failing to correct our mistakes.” – George Soros
Having been in recovery for 22-plus years, I must say it seems rare for me to hear someone has easily admitted to having a problem with alcohol or drugs. In other words, dealing with the stigma of “being addicted” is challenging to virtually everyone, at least when they first realize they’re drinking or using is out of their control and their lives, both personally and professionally, have declined to the point of being unmanageable. (For me, it was the hardest thing I’d ever done.)
However, the consequences doctors and nurses face admitting their issues with substance abuse are even more extreme.
They can lose their licenses or practices. Their credibility amongst their peers, superiors, and patients can be ruined. Their reputation as a medical professional can be immediately damaged, sometimes beyond repair. And there can be substantial legal and financial repercussions.
Given the potential severity of their openly admitting they have alcohol problems or drug addiction, along with the associated shame and stigma, doctors and nurses oftentimes will not self-report or seek help. And the fact is, their not seeking help damages the health and well-being of not only the doctor or nurse, but it also puts their patients at risk.
And if you believe this is not a widespread problem or is only happening in rare instances, think again. Research has shown 17% of nearly 1,900 responding physicians reported having had direct personal knowledge of an impaired or incompetent physician in their hospital, group or practice in the three preceding years. Of those, one third chose not to report the person.
Again, the stigma and shame can be a powerful obstacle to overcome, when anyone in the medical field is squarely facing addiction issues. Dr. Brene Brown, a researcher and renowned expert in the field of vulnerability, courage, and shame, has found, “Shame loves secrecy… When we bury our story, the shame metastasizes.” However, she goes on to point to an unexpected ally in the healing-of-shame process. “If we are going to find our way out of shame, vulnerability is the path and courage is the light. If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”
The “good news” is that in most states, there are numerous options for physicians and nurses who attempt to get help for problems with alcohol or drugs. Whether it be a physician/professionals health program, a substance abuse treatment program or an executive drug rehab, these programs are set up to allow physicians and nurses to get the addiction treatment they need to recover without losing their license or ability to practice.
Since these various treatment options offer specialized treatment care for medical professionals and address with understanding the stigma and shame associated with being a doctor or nurse with substance abuse issues, the doorway is opened wide to a new life of freedom for those in the medical community grappling in secret with addiction while endangering their patients.
Fortunately, getting help with recovery is not only possible, but can be provided by those who do not shame or punish health professionals with the disease of addiction, but instead provide them with whatever is necessary to support them getting clean and sober, and responsibly back into their medical practice, one day at a time.
 DesRoches, C.M. et al. “Physicians perceptions, preparedness for reporting and experiences related to impaired or incompetent colleagues.” JAMA 2010, 304: 187-193