Substance Abusing or Addicted Healthcare Workers Spawn Recommendation of Random Drug Testing, Expanded Treatment Services
Given the potential for doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers to have substance abuse or addiction issues (a.k.a. substance use disorders), many have suggested the need for enforced random drug testing of hospital staff, as well as expanding supportive addiction treatment services for healthcare professionals. A USA Today report states: “More than 100,000 doctors, nurses, medical technicians and healthcare aides are abusing or dependent on prescription drugs in a given year, putting patients at risk.”
Both doctors and nurses face the challenges and struggles of chemical dependency, indicated by published statistics. In a Harvard Medical School report, former Executive Director at Harvard Health, Dr. Patrick J. Skerret, concluded “one in 10 physicians develop problems with alcohol or drugs at some point during their careers.” Data about nurses experiencing issues with substance abuse and addiction—drawn from the American Nurse Association—shows “…about 10-15% of all nurses may be impaired or in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction.”
The causes for substance use disorders in medical professionals can be many. One study published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, reported self-medication as a leading cause for doctors’ abuse of prescription medications. Whether it’s to address the overwhelming stress of their job or physical or emotional pain, self-prescribed drugs—especially opiates—are commonly used to “take the edge off.” The study also noted recreational use was a significant factor in some cases.
Prescription drug abuse is not relegated solely to doctors and nurses, however; other healthcare workers—such as medical technicians, dental hygienists, etc.—as well, can be afflicted with a substance use disorder and thereby put their patients at risk.
Given the frequency of substance abuse and addiction in healthcare workers, and related occurrences of harm, even death, coming to patients as a result, it’s no wonder specific measures have been proposed to address and hopefully prevent such cases.
Although some hospitals have started random drug testing to identify doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals with substance abuse problems, it is neither required by law nor the standard at this time. However, random drug testing could become an emerging trend in healthcare, particularly because:
- The current opiate epidemic and prescription drug problem among healthcare workers is too large to ignore. With such high numbers and patient safety at risk, having a random drug testing program in place makes sense.
- Research suggests random drug testing is necessary in healthcare. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) stated, “Physicians and patient safety experts note that mandatory alcohol-drug testing for clinicians involved with unexpected deaths or sentinel events is not conducted in medicine… (It is) recommended that hospitals take a number of preventive measures, including a program of random alcohol-drug testing.”
- Adding to this stance, former Inspector General Daniel R. Levinson and Erika T. Broadhurst, formerly of the U.S. Office of Inspector General (OIG), addressed the issue of random drug testing physicians in a New York Times article: “We believe hospitals should be required to perform random drug tests on all healthcare workers with access to drugs.”
Beyond random drug testing, however, those in the healthcare industry with substance use disorders need greater accessibility to addiction treatment support. According to the most recent SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) study, research figures indicate approximately 19 million people in the U.S. needing substance abuse treatment did not receive substance abuse treatment.
Since this finding includes all professions, it would serve as a wake-up call to provide greater addiction treatment support to those in the healthcare field who seek recovery and treatment for substance use disorders.
 64B9-5 (rn.org)