Addiction Amongst Medical Professionals

The American Association of Nurse Anaesthetists states on NurseTogether.com that 10% to 15% of nurses have an addiction to an illegal or controlled substance. A study published by The Global Journal of Drug Policy & Practice (2010, Gold & Teitelbaum) found that 15% of doctors will have a drug dependency at some point in their careers, with 13% of surgeons found to have alcohol dependency in a study published by the American College of Surgeons (2012). The American Dental Association posits a 15% addiction rate in the dental profession.

Medical professionals have access to numerous forms of prescription drugs, however many protocols or restrictive measures may be in place. Over the last ten years, studies confirm just over a third of addicted professionals cite alcohol as their substance of choice. Just under one third of addicted professionals used opiate-based drugs. All other forms of illegal and prescription drug addictions form the remainder of addictions.

Working in medicine familiarizes one with the effects of drugs and alcohol, both negatively and positively. Ease of access and commonality of prescriptions can result in a normalization of use, which develops into an addiction.

Exhibiting Signs of Addiction

If a colleague, family member, or friend in the medical profession is showing signs of addiction, it is vital they seek help. However, medical professionals are more aware of signs of addiction and are adept at hiding those signs, meaning such problems may not be discovered for a long period of time. Signs to look out for include:

  • Change in personality and priorities
  • Becoming more secretive
  • Becoming more solitary
  • Increased reliance on colleagues in the workplace
  • Distracted or reduced job performance
  • Change in priorities
  • Financial difficulties
  • Relationship difficulties – romantic, familial and platonic

Medical professionals tend to have a strong work ethic, often to an unhealthy extent. Pressure comes from within themselves and their work environment. This pressure begins as medical students, when the long hours of study paired with the strain of exams and work, can lead to self-medication. General population substance use equates with that of the equivalent peer group in the medical student population, but unlike the general population, the medical profession is normalized to drugs and alcohol and continues to have easy access.

Addiction impairs cognitive function and impacts negatively on work practices, putting all patients and colleagues at risk. Addressing the problem will have consequences and job loss is possible. For this reason, it is common for excuses to be given for poor job performance, for alternate explanations to be sought for signs of addiction, and for problems to be ignored or excused.

What Can Be Done

Medical establishments can fear a loss of reputation should it be publicized that a staff member has an addiction problem. This is part of the stigma of having, living with, and recovering from an addiction. However, many establishments have alcohol or drug programs or will refer employees to rehabilitation facilities. It is more expensive to train new staff than to help with the rehabilitation of employees exhibiting problems, and such help creates a loyalty towards the company. Fear of stigma and of job loss should not inhibit one from seeking help towards recovery.

Addiction risks the safety of the addicted person, colleagues and patients. Recoveringnurses.org states that an addicted medical professional is more likely to cause an accident in the workplace than their non-addicted colleagues. Recovery will save more lives than just the addict’s. If you suspect a colleague has a problem, talk with his or her supervisor. If you are close, talk with your colleague, but be aware that addiction survives through denial so you may be met with hostility, anger or disbelief. If you suspect you have a problem, seek help; more than just your life depends on it.

The medical profession itself is fully cognisant of addiction within the industry. Many offer rehabilitative programs or support staff through independent rehabilitation. Those who have been through such programs show a lower rate of further addiction or substance use in comparison to both the general population and their peers in the medical profession. The future, if the first step is taken, is very bright.

There is still hope.

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