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Substance Abuse Among Doctors Puts Patients in Jeopardy

substance abuse doctors

What happens when the healthcare workers who care for others have a difficult time caring for themselves? USA Today did a review of the nation’s healthcare workers. Their data showed disturbing evidence that the system is embedded with doctors and nurses who themselves struggle with substance abuse or addiction.

According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more than 100,000 healthcare workers, including technicians, doctors and nurses, are abusing or are addicted to powerful narcotics and other prescription drugs. Substance abuse among doctors and nurses is rampant. These impaired employees often go unnoticed, which harms both themselves and their patients. Often, they believe that because they are able to hide their drug use and because they think it’s managing their stress that there must be no problem.

With proper rehabilitation treatment, these talented health professionals can find their way out of addiction and eventually resume their practice healing patients rather than putting them in danger of being hurt.

Substance Abuse Is the Wrong Cure for Stress

Surgeons, nurses, technicians and other healthcare workers can have very stressful jobs where their decisions, procedures and skills can mean life or death for a person. In order to deal with these stresses, some employees reach for the relief that surrounds them in their workplace — drugs. One doctor, interviewed by USA Today, admitted to taking 100 narcotic painkillers a day to help manage his stress.

Narcotics Within Easy Reach

Doctors and nurses are surrounded daily by powerful narcotics. There is always some type of medication within easy reach. This easy accessibility can be tempting for healthcare workers who struggle with an abuse or addiction problem.

The article cites examples of healthcare workers stealing patient medications and using patient syringes to inject themselves with medications. When they had shared needles, Hepatitis C spread through the hospital.

Doctors’ Substance Abuse Goes Unnoticed or Untreated

While there are hundreds of federal and state cases of drug diversion and medical malpractice due to drug use each year, patients can only imagine all of the cases that go unreported. Individuals interviewed admitted to frequently stealing and using patient prescriptions and medications without ever getting caught.

In many states, healthcare workers who are caught misusing patient medications or who are impaired on the job may be fired or reprimanded by the healthcare facility but don’t have to be reported to state law enforcement agencies. This policy does an injustice to both the employee and to the patients. The employee with an abuse problem is sent away rather than treated, and patients at another healthcare center are put at jeopardy.

Impaired Doctors Are a Danger to Patients

It’s disconcerting to know that tens of thousands of healthcare workers might be impaired by drugs while on the clock, putting patients at risk of too much or too little medicine, poor surgical procedures, errors in making diagnoses or other costly mistakes. Vulnerable patients trust the expertise of these professionals and generally don’t question a healthcare professional’s procedures.

Some doctors in the report said that they had no idea how impaired they were, and looking back, they were extremely grateful that they never hurt anyone.

Treating Those Who Treat Others

In order to protect patients and healthcare workers, health professionals need to find care for themselves. Substance abuse treatment centers can offer health professionals the individual treatment they need in order to overcome their addiction and resume their life-saving profession.

With drugs being so easily accessible in healthcare settings, all staff should have a greater awareness for any kind of drug misuse or abuse. Turning a blind eye toward a doctor or nurse’s addiction can be costly. Stress is no reason to become irresponsible or to condone the harmful abuse of a substance. Pointing a friend or colleague toward professional treatment and recovery is the best medicine for all involved.

Posted on June 18, 2014 and modified on April 25, 2019

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