U.S. Surgeons Struggle With Alcohol Abuse

Posted on June 11th, 2012
Posted in Alcoholism

When you go under a general anesthetic you are placing quite a bit of trust in the surgeon holding the scalpel. You are completely dependent upon his or her skill and expertise. Many fear surgery just because it is such a dependent condition. Those folks will not be encouraged by a recent report which suggests that a significant number of American surgeons are either abusing alcohol or are alcohol dependent.

Researchers anonymously surveyed more than a quarter of a million surgeons with questions pertaining to their lifestyle, work and mood. Somewhere around three percent (7,197) of the 250,000 actually completed the survey but of those who did respond, more than 1,000 were discovered to be abusing alcohol according to the Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test. Female surgeons were almost two times more likely to abuse alcohol (26 percent) than were male surgeons (14 percent). Taken together, the results point to a 15 percent alcohol abuse rate among the country’s surgeons.

The questionnaire indicated that being overworked (burned out) or depressed increased the risk of alcohol abuse but that being a family man or being employed by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs reduced the likelihood of abuse.

Patients who become familiar with the findings may naturally feel concern over whether or not alcohol abuse by surgeons endangers them on the operating table. The interpretation of data on this point yields some mixed results. On one side, experts claim that the likelihood of suffering injury at the hands of an alcohol-impaired surgeon are as small as one in 10,000. Those are pretty good odds in favor of the patient. However, small case studies published in the Archives of Surgery 2011 showed that while surgical skills did not appear affected by a previous night of drinking, a number of other medical errors did in fact rise the day following.

The import of the statistics can also be seen from two angles. On one hand, it can be argued that the very low number of respondents makes the implied rates of alcohol abuse suspect. The numbers could be skewed and deceivingly high. On the other hand, experts point out that a nonresponse bias might, in fact, suggest that the problem is even worse since doctors with a serious drinking habit would avoid responding to the survey. The study’s authors point out in the February 2012 issue of Archives of Surgery that the findings represent a real threat to surgical safety and skill.

Finally, it is worth noting that while many health professionals and others whose jobs require carefully monitored safety measures undergo random drug tests, surgeons are not routinely screened for drugs or alcohol. Thus, the small number of responses make it difficult to extrapolate the findings to surgeons in general. However, there is enough to awaken concern.

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