Addiction Among Medical Professionals: Signs And Treatment

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Medical professionals are not immune to addiction. Faced with high demands and unique pressures due to their jobs, health care workers may use substances to cope. However, there are telltale signs to look for if a medical professional you know needs help.

Addiction Among Medical Professionals: Signs And Treatment

Medical professionals have some of the highest rates of substance use disorder (SUD). Responsible for ensuring the health and well-being of others, these professionals often work long hours in strenuous, high-pressure conditions.

Addiction is hazardous in all industries. However, in the health care industry, it can have severe, life-threatening effects on patient care as well as on the care providers experiencing it.

Knowing the signs and risk factors of substance abuse among health care personnel (HCP) can ensure the safety of these professionals and their patients.

Health Care Field Substance Abuse Statistics

It is estimated that between 10% and 15% of HCP will meet the criteria for drug or alcohol addiction at some point in their lives. This statistic varies depending on career path.

Nurses have a higher risk of developing an addiction (20%), particularly alcohol abuse. About 17% of doctors experience alcohol abuse during their career.

Approximately 5.5% of health care providers abuse illicit drugs. Marijuana is the most commonly abused illicit drugs among this cohort.

Health care workers, mainly physicians, are five times more likely to abuse prescription drugs than the general population.

Abuse of benzodiazepines, such as Xanax and Valium, and opioids, like oxycodone and fentanyl, are especially prevalent.

Type Of Drug Use Rate Of Addiction Trend
Alcohol Use 17-20% Varies according to career, with the highest rates of alcohol addiction affecting nurses.
Prescription Drug Abuse 9.9%* *Rate pertains to nurses, specifically Drug addiction is five times higher among physicians than the general population.
Illicit Drug Use 5.5% Marijuana is the most popular illicit drug abused.

Signs Of Substance Abuse Among Medical Professionals

There are telltale signs to look for when a medical professional is experiencing substance abuse.

Common signs of substance abuse among health care workers include:

  • glossy, watery eyes
  • oversized or pinhole-sized pupils
  • uncharacteristic mood swings or changes in mental health
  • decline in personal hygiene
  • poor or excessive productivity
  • taking frequent trips to the bathroom
  • submitting incomplete or error-ridden paperwork
  • sudden preference to work night shifts, where there is less
  • supervision
  • sudden eagerness about personally administering or prescribing narcotics to patients
  • excessive absenteeism

Challenges Facing Health Care Professionals

Health care professionals face a distinct set of challenges in the workplace. These challenges serve as risk factors that can contribute to substance abuse.

Some of the challenges health care workers face include:

  • long hours at work
  • sleep deprivation
  • high-stress environments
  • high-stake situations, including decision-making regarding patients’ health
  • easy access to habit-forming pharmaceuticals

These conditions can also lead to secondary issues. Working long hours, for example, may result in less time spent with loved ones.

Working in high-stress, high-stake conditions may cause medical professionals to carry ill feelings into their home life and interactions with family members, affecting work-life balance.

Having easy access to addictive drugs can make it easier to justify usage. Professionals may downplay chemical dependency because they are accessing drugs from a “credible” source, as opposed to a street dealer.

Why HCP May Turn To Substances

Many HCP with drug addictions turn to illicit drugs or prescription medications in an effort to help them perform better at work. Their initial intent may be to stay awake for longer and remain alert.

These professionals may abuse substances to cope with the high pressure. The need to cope may extend to feelings of guilt and responsibility regarding patient medical outcomes.

Effects Of Addiction In The Medical Workplace

Substance abuse takes a toll on people with addictions, and it also takes a toll on their workplace. In the health care industry, the expense of impairment can be grave and unalterable.

Increased rates of on-the-job errors and accidents are among the greatest concerns that substance abuse causes in the health care industry. These professionals are also more likely to neglect their patients’ health.

When medical professionals abuse prescription drugs, specifically, these drugs may have been prescribed to patients. Patients can suffer high pain and poor health conditions as a direct result.

Over time, these adverse outcomes can cause the practice, hospital, or health care facility to have a poor reputation. Substance abuse among HCP is a snowballing of critical consequences.

Supporting Medical Professionals With Addictions

Medical professionals experiencing substance abuse may be hesitant to seek addiction treatment, because they are fearful of losing their license or practice.

However, these professionals are not immune to SUD and need to be supported.

The good news is, medical professionals have a higher success rate with maintaining sobriety after completing a substance abuse treatment program.

Addiction Treatment Options For HCP

Evidence-based treatment options are available that cater to health professionals. Most states now offer substance abuse treatment plans to HCP that do not affect their licensure or practice.

Behavioral health treatment programs for medical professionals are structured in such a way to prepare them to reenter the workplace and manage triggers. Detox, inpatient, and outpatient levels of care are available.

Addiction medicine is also available in some cases. Drugs like buprenorphine and naltrexone are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat opioid use disorder.

There are anonymous support groups that health care professionals can join to manage their aftercare and ongoing sobriety. If being identified in the community is a concern, many online support groups are available.

Get Help For Substance Abuse Today

If you or a loved one is experiencing substance abuse, help is only a phone call away. Whether you’re a member of the medical field or not, can help connect you with a treatment center today.


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