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Drug and Alcohol Abuse Among Health Care Professionals

Drug and Alcohol Abuse Among Health Care Professionals

We know that people self-medicate with various substances all the time. Sometimes we know these individuals personally, either our friends or family.

What we often don’t consider is the percentage of those in the health care industry who abuse drugs and alcohol. Doctors, nurses, and others in the medical field are under high amounts of stress, often overworked, see tragedies every day, and, unfortunately, enough of them decide to cope with substance abuse.

A drink now and then isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but a problem arises when these health care workers decide to partake in substances before or even during work.

They are handling the care of patients while under the influence of not only alcohol but sometimes drugs as well. It’s not only dangerous for the health care workers who do this but for all the patients under their care, as serious mistakes are far more likely to be made.

Medical professionals abusing drugs and alcohol is not a new phenomenon, but it’s still very concerning. We’ll dig into the details of why and how this occurs in this post.

Why Are Medical Providers Misusing Drugs and Alcohol?

The easy answer is: for the same reasons that anyone else does.

It could be to cope with the high stress of their jobs, or an attempt to forget about traumatizing things they’ve seen among their patients. Or, it could be they suffer from addiction. Addiction doesn’t discriminate, anyone can suffer from it, no matter their profession, but certain professions, like those in the medical field, suffer from it more than others.

Unfortunately, there have not been many recent studies on substance abuse in medical professions, but in 2015, the National Institute of Health (NIH) sent out surveys to many physicians across the United States to help determine the prevalence of substance use disorders (SUDS).

Of the 7,288 physicians who completed the NIH survey, 12.9% of male physicians and 21.4% of female physicians met the diagnostic criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence, however, illicit drug use or abuse was rare.

For years anesthesiologists have had a much greater rate of substance misuse than any other physicians.

As recently as 2005 (the current data available) hair analysis data from the NIH shows the drug of choice for anesthesiologists was opioids, specifically fentanyl and sufentanil.

The most proposed factors to explain this are that anesthesiologists have more proximity and easier access to highly addictive drugs than other medical providers, and being in close contact with such drugs sensitizes the reward pathways in the brain, promoting substance abuse.

While there may be many reasons why medical professionals frequently partake in substances, there is never an excuse to show up at work and care for patients while intoxicated or under the influence of drugs.

Ways Health Care Workers Acquire Drugs

Most of the health providers who suffer from SUDS try to stay under the radar. They don’t want anyone, especially their coworkers or bosses, to know about their substance use so they find subversive ways to acquire the drugs they need.

Drug diversion is one of the most common ways that nurses especially get their hands on drugs that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to acquire. That is to say, they pull a drug intended for a patient, mark that the patient has received the drug, but then keep the drug for themselves and their personal use.

Not only is that stealing and falsifying patient records, but the patient who needed that drug never received it and now that nurse is likely caring for that patient and others while under the influence of drugs.

Self-prescribing is another commonality among doctors suffering from SUDS. They write prescriptions for themselves in order to get the drugs they want to feed their habit. The most common drugs obtained in this manner are painkillers.

Consequences of Addiction in Health Care

As we’ve already discussed, substance abuse doesn’t only affect the person struggling with addiction, but everyone around them as well.

In the case of doctors or nurses, those who suffer from addiction may forget orders, incorrectly chart patient records, and have a higher chance of causing serious workplace accidents.

Additionally, they may fear termination or suspension and the possibility that they may lose their medical license. They’re less likely to step forward and ask for help from management, colleagues, friends, or family because of these fears.

When those medical professionals suffering from SUDS don’t seek help and continue to manage patient care while under the influence, the chances of serious harm occurring to a patient rise tremendously.

A surgeon might make a mistake while a patient is on the table, a nurse may administer the wrong dosage or wrong medication to a patient, or an anesthesiologist may not be coherent enough to properly monitor a patient in their care.

All of these examples can be serious, sometimes life-threatening situations, and all of these are entirely preventable.

Addiction Is No Excuse for Causing Harm

Although excessive use of drugs and alcohol due to stressors of the job may be understandable, it’s no excuse for willfully putting others at risk. We can be sympathetic to those medical providers who suffer from addiction, while at the same time holding them accountable for putting the lives and care of their patients in danger.

If you believe your doctor, nurse, or anyone handling your medical care is or was under the influence of drugs or alcohol while they were caring for you and you suffered because of their actions, Shrager, Sachs, & Blanco may be able to help.

If you know a health care professional who is suffering from addiction or SUDS and is coming to work inebriated or under the influence of drugs, consider staging an intervention for them to seek help before their negligent actions cause serious harm.

If they admit their problems sooner, they have a higher chance of still being successful in the field of medicine after participating in a detox program or attending a rehab facility.

We all have stress from our jobs and sometimes we may unwind at the end of a long day with a glass of wine or another drink. It becomes a problem when someone suffers from addiction and their method of relaxation pours over into the workplace and resulted in medical malpractice, meaning their actions caused a patient preventable harm.

Hopefully, those health care professionals suffering from SUDS will get help, and patients who may have been harmed by them can seek legal counsel.

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