In a study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings titled, “Chemical Dependency and the Physician,” the authors point out that medical doctors—contrary to what many may think—are not immune from the problem of chemical dependency (a.k.a., substance use disorder, addiction to alcohol and/or drugs). In fact, they cite research confirming doctors have an addiction rate similar to the general population: 10 – 12% will develop chemical dependency at some time during their careers.
This finding underscores the importance of recognizing drug addiction does not discriminate, since it afflicts people from all backgrounds, social strata, educational levels, races, creeds and careers.
In other words, even surgeons can struggle with addiction.
Certainly, a surgeon’s career demands extensive education, rigorous discipline and extraordinary precision on a daily basis. The required knowledge and expertise used by surgeons is also typically accompanied by abnormally high levels of stress, not to mention the unusually long hours they must regularly spend at the hospital or medical center where they work.
Besides being physically taxing on their bodies, such high-pressure, life-or-death work also naturally places great demands on them mentally and emotionally. Understandably, this is a heavy burden to bear, and many surgeons can find it difficult to meet these demands and process their thoughts, feelings and stress in healthy ways.
For some doctors, the physical wear-and-tear, the strictness and exactitude of surgery, high stress levels and frequent sleep deprivation eventually can become too much to handle.
Because of a surgeon’s ease of access to prescription drugs, turning to opiates, opioids, amphetamines or barbiturates to “cope” or alleviate their stress can seem like a ready-made solution. Obtaining relief from the stress or gaining a temporary deep sense of ecstasy or an upsurge of energy can cause even a medically trained physician to mistakenly believe this or that pill can make life easier, if not more productive.
However, once started down the road of regular use of any highly addictive drug, it can become extremely challenging, if not “impossible,” to stop using them. Why? Because when one wants to stop or even begin weaning off these pills, the intense discomfort of withdrawal symptoms usually kicks in immediately.
Unfortunately, most, if not all, people who become chemically dependent find the consequences of their substance abuse building up at an uncontrollable rate – in the case of a surgeon, not only is damage done to one’s physical body and mental health, one’s practice, medical licensure and career is put in dire jeopardy, as well as the safety and well-being of one’s patients, loved ones, co-workers and employers.
When a surgeon recognizes their affliction is out-of-hand and help is needed, where can he or she turn?
Most every state in the U.S. has a professionals resource network (PRN) to assist impaired physicians in finding the help they need to recover from substance use disorders, while maintaining their credentials and medical licensure, wherever possible. Reaching out to one’s local PRN may take courage and an open-minded attitude, given fear of being “found out” is oftentimes the biggest obstacle to getting help.
Still, PRNs are dedicated to referring impaired doctors to treatment facilities specifically designed for doctors and other healthcare professionals with evidence-based addiction treatment, peer-assisted counseling and cutting-edge rehabilitation programs, all done in an atmosphere of confidentiality and safety.
As Berge, et al. put it, “After a diagnosis of addiction has been established, treatment should be initiated at a program that specializes in the care of addicted physicians. Detoxification is frequently needed to prevent withdrawal symptoms and to provide a safe transition to a drug-free state. The patient will be assigned to an addiction counselor and a physician. Most treatment-program curricula include individual and group psychotherapy, education about addiction, and the opportunity for fellowship to reestablish positive relationships with peers.
The “good news” is that a very high percentage (over 75%) of physicians who enter and complete addiction treatment, and then follow their aftercare treatment guidelines (per an agreed-upon contract developed at the start of treatment), are found to be “clean and sober,” in possession of their medical license and employed in their medical profession after 5 years.
 Berge, K.H., et al. “Chemical Dependency and the Physician.” Mayo Clin Proc. 2009 Jul; 84(7): 625–631.
 Hughes PH, Brandenburg N, Baldwin DC, Jr, et al. Prevalence of substance use among US physicians [published correction appears in JAMA. 1992;268(18):2518] JAMA 1992;267(17):2333-2339; McLellan AT, Skipper GS, Campbell M, DuPont RL. Five-year outcomes in a cohort study of physicians treated for substance use disorders in the United States. BMJ 2008;337: a2038
 Baldisseri, M.R. “Impaired Healthcare Professional.” Critical Care Medicine. Feb. 2007.