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Why Are So Many Doctors Addicted to Drugs?

substance abuse doctors

What happens when those who care for others have a difficult time caring for themselves? Research shows that a disturbing number of doctors struggle with substance abuse. Where 8% to 10% of the general population abuses drugs or alcohol, some estimates have the range for physicians at 10% to 15%.

While these numbers are frightening for patients who depend on doctors for thorough, consistent treatment, it shouldn’t surprise anyone. Doctors are just as prone as anyone else to the effects of stress and pressure. They also have easy access to the drugs they administer to patients. These powerful risk factors warrant a closer look into how easy it is for medical professionals to fall into addiction and how to help them.

Why Do Doctors Become Addicted?

Addiction is one of the issues doctors are supposed to know how to treat, so it may seem counter-intuitive to hear that addiction affects so many. But surgeons, nurses, technicians and other healthcare workers have very stressful jobs. Their decisions, procedures and skills can mean life or death for their patients. They’re also known to work long hours—57% of doctors have reported working 71 or more hours per week.

Physician burnout is very real and has tremendous consequences. Doctors are significantly more likely to commit suicide than the general population. Mental health issues are pervasive among healthcare workers, and there is a vast stigma around seeking treatment.

Rather than seek help through therapy or ask for time off work, doctors are more likely to try to stick it out. This naturally leads to the issues worsening. Some physicians turn to the drugs that surround them to cope.

Which Substances Do Doctors Abuse?

No matter their area of expertise, all doctors come in contact with addictive substances. Which substances they abuse may depend on their specialty. For example, anesthesiologists are more likely to experiment with powerful opioids like fentanyl. Psychiatrists may first try tranquilizers like benzodiazepines to cope with their stress. A famous example is Dr. William Stewart Halsted, the “Father of American Surgery.” He was known for developing a cocaine addiction while running his own experiments on its use in surgical procedures.

All doctors are at-risk for drug abuse because of their ability to self-prescribe. No matter their specialty, doctors are most likely to deal with prescription drug addiction.

What Does Substance Abuse Among Doctors Look Like?

A good way to judge whether a doctor is addicted—or is at-risk for becoming addicted—is to look for certain signs and symptoms. If you are a doctor struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues, take note of how many of these symptoms you might be displaying. There’s a good chance colleagues may point these signs and symptoms out to you. A few indicators include:

  • Appearing sleep-deprived
  • Deterioration or sharp decline in personal hygiene
  • Mood swings, such as increased irritability or sadness
  • Missing work or pages from colleagues
  • Sudden and inexplicable bursts of energy
  • Showing a decreased concern for patients
  • Suspecting or knowing you have a problem, but feeling reluctant to mention it or get help
  • Feeling unable to change your habits despite your better judgment

If you find that you have experienced one or more of these symptoms, it may be time to seek the help of a substance abuse treatment center.

Patients at Risk Because of Addicted Physicians

Doctors are particularly good at hiding their addictions, often able to do so for 15 years or more before their actions are discovered by someone at the workplace. Consequences for patients, however, range from botched surgeries to faulty dental work and inaccurate diagnoses. These horror stories prove that some patients under the care of a physician working under the influence of intoxicants have lifelong disabilities because of the damage inflicted. Malpractice lawsuits can help affected patients find solace, but many doctors continue to practice even after being sued in a court of law.

In many states, healthcare workers caught using drugs and alcohol may be fired. But superiors don’t necessarily have to report the incident to state law enforcement agencies; this policy is considered an injustice to both the employee and to their patients by many. The employee with an abuse problem is sent away rather than treated. Patients at another healthcare center where the addicted physician acquires a new job may be put at jeopardy.

Why Don’t Doctors Seek Help?

Due to the idea that doctors should be able to diagnose and treat themselves, they feel shame as well as pressure to hide their problems. Some physicians with substance abuse either never seek help or do so through alcohol and drugs. Few doctors take full advantage of their own physicians. Many turn to each other for advice but fear scrutiny and judgment from their peers.

Here are a few other reasons doctors may avoid seeking treatment:

  • There are no coworkers available to cover their shifts for them, even for therapy appointments.
  • They’re desperate to maintain an image of competence and invulnerability.
  • They fear that other doctors or medical professionals will not be as competent as they are.
  • They worry they’ll lose their careers if a drug addiction treatment program is ordered.

Helping Those Who Help Others

The stigma that doctors face is an unrealistic expectation of perfection. Despite the unreasonable amount of work asked of them, and the calm with which they may handle themselves (for a while), most addicts eventually break.

There are a few action steps that should be taken by individual doctors as well as the healthcare community:

  1. Reduce the stigma surrounding substance abuse and mental health – Doctors who admit they need help should not be seen as weak.
  2. Doctors who have overcome issues with addiction and those who have been through treatment programs should be more outspoken about their personal stories of recovery – Though it’s easier said than done, such actions would normalize the issue and inspire others to do the same.
  3. Teach and promote self-care in medical schools, clinics and hospitals – Wellness and prevention programs should be implemented and incentivized in the workplace.
  4. Physician health programs should do more to educate and prevent against physician substance use – Doctors should not view substance abuse treatment as something forced upon them but as a viable option. Physician health programs should reinforce this idea.

Promises treatment center offers drug rehab for professionals. The program is designed with physicians’ unique needs in mind. You can trust Promises to provide expertise, discretion and camaraderie with like-minded peers to help you be successful. For a free and confidential consultation about treatment for addiction, give us a call at 844-876-5568 today.

Posted on June 18, 2014 and modified on June 3, 2019

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