A Recipe for Addiction? The Unique Challenges Health Care Professionals Face
Certain characteristics make some people more vulnerable than others to addiction. There is a hereditary component, of course, as we know addiction can run in families. But DNA does not necessarily make addiction a foregone conclusion and likely only contributes to about 50% of the risk of developing addiction. Environment and personality characteristics also play roles in addiction, sometimes contributing to a “recipe” of combined factors that make one person more likely than the next to fall victim to substance abuse.
What Puts Medical Professionals at Risk?
People who are high achievers and tend toward perfectionism are often very successful in their chosen professions. However, this also may make them less likely to admit when they are facing problems and less likely to reach out for help. The perfectionism and ambition that drive them to succeed in their careers may also motivate them to hide anything they fear might be perceived as faults or weaknesses, or that could potentially jeopardize their hard-earned reputation. Add to this the fact that people with these traits often choose challenging or stressful careers (i.e., medical professions), which may fuel the compulsion to use alcohol or other drugs to cope with the stress or to reward their successes.
In addition to the typical stress of hard-working professionals, health care providers often face unique challenges to achieving long-term recovery. Some have easy access to various drugs of abuse in their work environment. Once addicted, they may try to hide their substance abuse for fear of losing their career standing and/or the right to practice medicine. Spouses and colleagues may also protect a doctor who is struggling with addiction in an attempt to preserve their reputation. Unfortunately, this “conspiracy of silence” often makes the problem worse.
Overcoming Challenges to Recovery
There is hope for medical professionals struggling with addiction, particularly through treatment programs that address the unique challenges they face in finding and maintaining sobriety. In order for addiction treatment to be effective, medical professionals may need to take a break from clinical practice in order to complete treatment, preferably in a program with other medical providers. Additionally, once they return to work, they may be monitored on an ongoing basis to help guard against relapse.
With appropriate treatment, medical professionals with substance abuse problems can create a successful life in recovery. Research has shown physicians consistently have better outcomes than the general population. Much of that is due to the high quality of treatment and ongoing monitoring that they receive. Many professionals respond well to treatment and learn to employ recovery strategies and “tools” that can get them back on track personally and professionally.