How To Treat Doctors With Addiction
Research suggests that doctors are a special population with a greater incidence of substance abuse (PDF) issues than the general population. There are several factors that may contribute to this fact. One is the stress associated with being a doctor. Many doctors work in environments in which they are busy all day long. They are also responsible for the well-being and the lives of hundreds or even thousands of patients. Some may turn to alcohol or drugs to cope with the stress.
Doctors may also resist becoming patients themselves. Mental illness is a major risk factor for substance abuse and addiction. When left untreated, many people with a mental illness turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to self-medicate. Many doctors are uncomfortable with admitting to having symptoms of mental illness because of the stigma or because of the fear of losing their jobs. As a result, they go untreated.
Another factor is access. Doctors have easy access to prescription medications. Hospitals, in particular, are loaded with a variety of prescription drugs to treat patients. Doctors and other healthcare professionals can access these drugs on a daily basis. Because of these factors, and perhaps others, 103,000 medical professionals abuse drugs every year in the U.S.
There are explanations for why doctors are so prone to substance abuse, and more for why the problem has remained hidden for years. As with mental illness, doctors may be especially reluctant to admitting to a substance abuse problem or addiction. They may fear the repercussions that would affect their career and personal life. Another issue is that hiding addiction in the medical profession isn’t difficult. Not many facilities require that medical caregivers be tested for substance abuse. Although many high-risk industries have safeguards in place to prevent drug abuse on the job, the healthcare community isn’t one of them.
Furthermore, policies lag behind the problem of substance abuse and addiction among doctors. Most states have no rules that require hospitals or medical offices to report instances of substance abuse. Instead of being reported, a doctor or other caregiver may simply be fired, only to find a job somewhere else. Disciplinary action, as a result, rarely occurs until there have been multiple incidents or a patient is harmed.
One possible solution to the pervasive problem of addicted doctors is to provide specialized care. Most states have rehabilitation facilities designed for healthcare workers. Some doctors may even be able to keep practicing medicine if they have entered such treatment willingly. Most complete the program without suffering disciplinary action.
If these facilities would allow doctors to participate anonymously and without fear of discipline, perhaps many more would seek treatment. As it stands, only a fraction of healthcare workers take advantage of these special programs. In ignoring the problem, more people will suffer, including patients being treated by impaired doctors. Attention must be brought to the issue so that more doctors will be willing to get the help they need.