- Who Are Medical Professionals?
- Prevalence and Causes of Addiction Among Medical Professionals
- Why Is Substance Abuse Common Among Medical Professionals?
- Substances Most Commonly Abused by Medical Professionals
- Co-Occurring Disorders Among Medical Professionals
- Impact of Addiction on Your Professional Performance
- Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Addiction in Medical Professionals
- Accessing Help
- Specialized Treatment Options for Medical Professionals
- Key Sources
- Medical Disclaimer
Tuomo has been working as a nurse on a hospital ward for over 8 years. During that time, he’s endured long shift hours and attended to numerous emergencies, all while looking after ill patients and their families. Although Tuomo loves helping people, the high-stress environment has also led him to develop chronic anxiety and insomnia.
To ease these conditions, Tuomo takes a combination of benzodiazepines to help with anxiety and sleep, and prescription stimulants to keep him focused and awake during the day. However, Tuomo obtains prescriptions for these drugs from multiple doctors at his workplace because he needs more than the prescribed amount to feel the effects. This has led him to feel shame and hide his drug use from his colleagues, friends, and family.
The fictional story above is an example of how medical professionals can end up abusing drugs. Not only do they have easier access to drugs, but the high-stress environments in which they work can cause them to depend on substances to cope.
While some medical professionals are reluctant to seek help, there are ways to obtain treatment.
Who Are Medical Professionals?
Medical professionals are at the front line of our health services. Whether it’s a doctor, nurse, or pharmacist, these individuals play vital roles in terms of diagnosing and treating ailments, injuries, and diseases. These roles include:
- Dental hygienists
- Hospice workers
- Trained caregivers
- Clinical staff
- Laboratory staff
Prevalence and Causes of Addiction Among Medical Professionals
- According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than 100,000 medical professionals are abusing prescription drugs.
- The Journal of Clinical Nursing reports that approximately 20% of nurses struggle with an addiction to drugs or alcohol.
- It is estimated that 1 in 10 physicians and 10% – 15% of all medical professionals will abuse substances at some point during their careers.
- Roughly 4.4% of medical professionals have a problem with heavy alcohol consumption.
- Approximately 5.5% of medical professionals struggle with illicit drug abuse.
- A 2013 localized study of 55 physicians found that 69% of them misused prescription drugs at least once.
- Interestingly, physicians who receive treatment and ongoing monitoring have a far lower rate of substance relapse: 71% are reported to remain sober, licensed and employed after 5 years.
Why Is Substance Abuse Common Among Medical Professionals?
Medical professionals can endure high amounts of stress in their jobs, especially surgeons, physicians, and nurses who work long hours and perform complex procedures. Some statistics indicate that 80% of doctors consider early retirement due to the high levels of stress. Also, 1 in 3 doctors report being affected by stress on the job.
Another reason that substance abuse is common in this industry is the ease of access to various drugs. While mental and emotional issues are usually the underlying causes of substance abuse, the fact that many of these professionals have access to addictive medications puts them at high risk. Medical staff also have a unique understanding of the effects of these medications, which may encourage both recreational and medicinal use.
While some of these reasons may be due to stress or to simply feel better, some medical professionals also turn to substances to cope with the long hours of work. Prescription stimulants, for example, become a temptation to combat insomnia and tiredness on the job.
Substances Most Commonly Abused by Medical Professionals
A 2009 Mayo Clinic study of 900 physicians found that over 50% of them misused alcohol. Alcohol is also a commonly abused substance by other medical professionals, who use it to cope with high stress levels, or to unwind at the end of the day. Healthcare workers sometimes work 12-hour shifts or longer, which can make alcohol a tempting pick-me-up at the end of the day.
Also, exposure to traumatic and high-stress situations can encourage alcohol use in order to numb uncomfortable feelings or forget about distressing events. Some medical professionals may also be struggling with underlying mental health conditions, which can prompt alcohol misuse.
Many medical staff who abuse alcohol are considered high-functioning alcoholics, as they find ways to balance drinking with their career. However, the signs below can be indicators that someone has a problem:
- Frequent absences or breaks during a shift.
- Alcohol on breath.
- Tardiness or lateness.
- Slurred speech.
- Hidden bottles.
- Frequent hangovers.
- Mood swings/ irritability.
- Poor hygiene.
- Aggression/violent behavior (at work or domestic disturbances).
Prescription drugs are another highly abused drug among medical professionals and this is largely due to access. The 2009 Mayo Clinic study found that out of 900 physicians, 36% of them had abused opioids. Other studies show that 87% of physicians have self-prescribed themselves medications, over half of which were pain medications.
Opioid abuse has been a common problem for many years. While many start out on opioids due to injury, surgery, or illness, some become dependent on drugs like fentanyl, Vicodin, OxyContin, and morphine. These may provide short-term relief for medical workers who are experiencing pain; however, they are extremely addictive and should not be taken regularly. This is especially important for medical professionals, who can put patients at risk if they are under the influence at work.
Stimulants are commonly abused by medical professionals who work long shifts. Prescription stimulants such as Adderall are not only easily accessible, but many workers who endure long hours find themselves dependent on these drugs to stay awake. While stimulants can be useful in the short term, over time they can produce effects and withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, paranoia, cardiovascular problems, and hallucinations. Stimulants can also encourage risky and impulsive behavior while impairing someone’s judgement.
Medical professionals are also known to abuse other substances, either simultaneously or on their own. These include:
- Illegal stimulants (e.g., methamphetamines)
- Club Drugs (e.g., ecstasy)
- Nonprescription opioids
Co-Occurring Disorders Among Medical Professionals
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Like first responders, many medical professionals also experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While perhaps not as common or acute as it is among the first responder community, medical staff are also exposed to distressing situations, as they attend to patients who have experienced accidents or violent acts. Research has shown that people with PTSD are more than 50% likely to develop a substance use problem.
Some of the symptoms that medical professionals may experience when it comes to PTSD include:
- Depression and anxiety.
- Nightmares or bad dreams.
- Frightening thoughts.
- Recurrent memories of the event.
- Avoidance of places, events, or people that remind them of traumatic experiences.
- Being easily startled.
- Feeling “on edge.”
- Irritability, anger, or aggression.
- Memory problems.
- Negative thoughts about themselves.
Depression and Anxiety
Anxiety and depression are common co-occurring conditions among medical professionals. Some studies indicate that rates of anxiety are around 3%, although this tends to be higher among females. Due to the high-stress environments that many medical staff are exposed to, depression and anxiety become common mental health conditions among this group. This can also be exacerbated by burnout and constant caring for sick and dying patients, especially during periods like the Covid-19 pandemic, when patient numbers have been incredibly high.
Sleep disorders are also common among health professionals who endure long and arduous work hours. Research shows that nearly half of the physicians in the U.S. are suffering from burnout. Another study out of 1,000 staff members at a medical clinic revealed that 29% of them had a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea, insomnia, restless leg syndrome, and shift work disorder. Unsurprisingly, insomnia was the most common sleep disorder, with 14% of staff members being affected. Burnout and sleep deprivation are an ongoing problem that needs addressing, as it not only affects workers’ well-being, but also the quality of patient care.
Impact of Addiction on Your Professional Performance
It’s no secret that substance abuse and addiction are hazardous to one’s professional performance. For doctors and surgeons, especially, substance abuse can put their patients’ lives at risk. It is not unheard of for surgeons to take drugs to cope with the long hours or to self-medicate if they are unwell. Some medical professionals may be distracted on the job, or they may abruptly leave surgical procedures or appointments to take drugs.
While substance abuse is concerning when it comes to a medical professionals’ physical and mental health, it is important that these individuals seek help so that they do not put their patients at risk. While it may be difficult to admit that they need help, it’s vital that they minimize the risk of accidents or malpractice due to substance misuse.
Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Addiction in Medical Professionals
There are a variety of signs and symptoms of substance misuse among medical professionals. These include:
- Changing jobs frequently.
- Preferring night shifts because there is less supervision and easier access to medication.
- Falling asleep on the job or in-between shifts.
- Frequently volunteering to administer narcotics to patients.
- Displaying anxiousness about working overtime or extra shifts.
- Taking frequent breaks or abruptly leaving appointments.
- Smelling of alcohol or excessively using breath mints or mouthwash.
- Financial, relationship, or family stress.
- Glassy eyes or small pupils.
- Unusually friendly relationships with doctors that prescribe medications.
- Incomplete charting or repeated errors in paperwork.
- Health problems (resultant from substance use).
- Burned fingers or lips, or needle marks, wearing long sleeves in warm weather.
- Trouble maintaining eye contact.
- Slurred speech or stuttering.
- Personality changes such as mood swings, lack of impulse control, depression, and anxiety.
Like many industries, one of the barriers that medical professionals face when it comes to substance abuse and mental health is social stigma. Many individuals are afraid to open up about their problems out of fear of being judged or treated differently by their colleagues.
However, if you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, there are options. If discussing the issues within your workplace is not an option, there are mental health professionals and rehab centers that can provide confidential help. Some of the resources that first responders can refer themselves to include:
- Targeted rehab programs: there are many centers that cater to the needs of medical professionals.
- Employee Assistance Programs: these provide referrals and classes for people with stress and substance abuse issues.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): provides a list of treatment provider locations.
- PTSD Foundation of America: provides resources for first responders on their website.
- Alcoholics Anonymous(AA): offers local meetings that cater to specific dem
- The National Suicide Prevention Hotline: a toll-free number for individuals thinking of self-harm or suicide.
Specialized Treatment Options for Medical Professionals
Substance abuse treatment for medical professionals is similar to the general population; however, many individuals can benefit from programs that target this industry. Receiving treatment alongside others who work in the health sector can be helpful and more effective. This can include a mixture of detox, individual and group therapies, 12-Step groups, nutritional therapy, family therapy, etc. Treatment has also been proven to be more effective when people are grouped with other individuals in similar occupations.
Traditional treatment options for first responders who are struggling with substance abuse include:
- Residential or inpatient treatment
- Partial hospitalization program (PHP)
- Intensive outpatient programs (IOP)
- Regular outpatient programs
- Sober living
There are also specific therapies that are known to be effective for conditions like PTSD and substance abuse. These include:
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): this treatment is led by a therapist who guides an individual through a series of rapid eye movements to redirect traumatic memories.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): one of the hallmark therapies for substance abuse and mental health conditions. This type of therapy can help veterans change negative cycles of thinking into more positive and affirming ones.
If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse, you are not alone. Treatment and support are readily available. Contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment.
You can also find a list of treatment centers near you on our website to help get you on the path to recovery.
Baldisseri, M.R. (2013). Impaired healthcare professional. Critical Care Medicine, 35(2), S106-S116.
Bush, D., and Lipari, R. (2015). Substance Use and Substance Use Disorder by Industry. samhsa.gov. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/report_1959/ShortReport-1959.html.
Cheney, C. (2020). Sleep Disorders in Healthcare Professionals Linked to Higher Odds of Burnout. healthleadersmedia.com. https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/clinical-care/sleep-disorders-healthcare-professionals-linked-higher-odds-burnout.
Kenna, G., and Lewis, D. (2008). Risk factors for alcohol and other drug use by healthcare professionals. Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy. 3(3). https://10.1186/1747-597X-3-3.
Murray, K. (2021). Alcoholism And Medical Professionals. alcoholrehabguide.org. https://www.alcoholrehabguide.org/resources/alcoholism-and-medical-professionals.
At RehabAid.com, we are dedicated to helping people recover from problematic substance use and associated mental health disorders. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol, you are not alone. Information on treatment and support options is readily available through the National Helpline of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-4357. To further assist you along the path to recovery, the treatment center locator on our website allows you to easily find rehabilitation programs and services in your local area.
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