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How Addiction Affects Healthcare Professionals
Some studies suggest that up to 10% of healthcare professionals use drugs or alcohol to cope with their problems.
Experts say that healthcare professionals are more likely to become addicted to drugs and alcohol due to:
- Easy access to medication
- A stressful work environment
- Long work hours
- Negative emotions associated with dealing with traumatic injuries and deaths
- The constant pressure to maintain high standards of care
Scope of Substance Abuse Among Healthcare Professionals
Here’s a breakdown of the scope of substance abuse among different types of healthcare professionals.
Substance Use in Nurses
Nurses provide and coordinate patient care, provide emotional support and advice to patients and their families, and educate the public and patients about different health conditions.
Addiction and substance misuse among nurses has been recognized by professionals in the field for over a century.
According to a 2011 Journal of Clinical Nursing study, up to 20% of nurses may have substance use disorders. Fear of punishment and discipline may keep nurses and nursing students from asking for help or reporting a friend or colleague who needs help.
A 1998 American Journal of Industrial Medicine study revealed that nurses working night shifts that lasted 8 hours had the highest likelihood of alcohol use and smoking. Nurses who worked rotating shifts of over 8 hours were the most likely to report alcohol use.
Substance Use in Physicians (Doctors)
Physicians, also known as doctors, are licensed health professionals who diagnose, treat, and prevent injuries and illnesses.
Doctors often face a lot of stress, especially if they treat people with severe illnesses and conditions. They often receive a lot of pressure from their colleagues and patients’ family members to restore patients’ health.
Doctors’ elevated social status also has an isolating effect when they develop a stigmatized disease like addiction.
Around 10% to 12% of physicians will develop a substance use disorder during their careers. According to a 5-year 2008 study of 904 physicians, alcohol was the main drug of abuse in 50.3%, opioids in 35.9%, stimulants in 7.9%, and other substances in 5.9%.
In addition, 50% reported abuse of multiple substances, 17% had previous treatment for addiction, and 13.9% had a history of intravenous drug use.
Substance Use in Surgeons
Surgeons are physicians that perform surgical procedures on patients to treat illnesses.
In a study of 7,197 surgeons, 15.4% had an alcohol addiction. This is because surgeons are often burned out or experiencing depression, and surgeons with these conditions are more likely to battle alcohol abuse or dependence.
According to a 2015 study of 784 U.S. neurosurgeons, the overall burnout rate was 56.7%. Factors associated with burnout included a lack of balance between work and life outside the hospital and anxiety over healthcare reform and future earnings.
Substance Use in Dentists
Dentists, also known as dental surgeons, diagnose and treat problems with patients’ teeth, gums, and other areas of the mouth.
According to an American Dentist Association Dentist Well-Being Survey Report, 17% of dentists used analgesics (painkillers), and 2% used opiates. Some also used nitrous oxide and amphetamines.
Although only 10% were at high risk of alcoholism, 18% of all practicing dentists believed they should reduce drinking. Being unsatisfied with their dental practice and lacking control at work was associated with higher chances of developing alcoholism.
Substance Use in Pharmacists
Pharmacists are trained to store, prepare, handle, and dispense medications safely and effectively.
According to a 2003 study of pharmacists in a small northeastern state, 58.7% reported using a non-prescribed drug at least once, and 12.8% used drugs in the previous year.
Generally, the total illicit drug and alcohol use rates by pharmacists were similar to those of other health professional groups. Still, many pharmacists reported lifetime use of anxiolytics, minor opiates, and stimulants.
Substance Use in Other Medical Professionals
Other medical professionals also experience drug and alcohol addiction issues. Generally speaking, professionals who experience more stress and burnout are more likely to develop alcohol and drug problems.
Risk Factors for Alcohol and Drug Addiction in Healthcare Professionals
Risk factors are behaviors, conditions, or characteristics that increase an individual’s chance of developing a disorder, condition, or disease.
Common risk factors for alcohol and drug addiction in healthcare professionals include:
- Medical field stressors
- Ease of access to prescription drugs
- Extensive knowledge of substances
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Mental health issues in healthcare professionals
Medical Field Stressors
Medical professionals experience a wide range of stressors that may lead to the development of alcohol and drug addiction.
Common medical field stressors include:
- Long working hours
- Demanding workloads that can lead to stress and burnout
- A competitive work environment
- Pressure from patients, their families, and colleagues
Ease of Access to Prescription Drugs
Medical professionals also have easier access to prescription drugs due to their jobs, which boosts the likelihood of misuse and ensuing addiction. Prescription drugs, such as benzodiazepines and opioids, are highly addictive and can be abused or misused.
Extensive Knowledge of Substances
Healthcare professionals are also more knowledgeable about how certain drugs and substances affect the mind.
This makes it easier for them to abuse or misuse these substances. For instance, a pharmacist may know how to forge prescriptions and obtain drugs through other illicit means. They may also believe themselves to be immune to the risks of substance abuse since they know the use threshold.
PTSD in Medical Professionals
Medical professionals often develop PTSD after witnessing a traumatic event, such as a medical error or a patient’s death.
PTSD can have many physical and mental effects, including depression, anxiety, insomnia, and feelings of hopelessness. Many healthcare professionals turn to alcohol or drugs to cope with these symptoms.
Mental Health Issues in Healthcare Professionals
Healthcare professionals are at an increased risk of developing mental health problems due to medical field stressors and frequent exposure to traumatic events.
Mental health issues can lead to substance abuse and vice versa.
Some of the mental health conditions that healthcare professionals may develop include:
- Anxiety: Healthcare professionals may develop anxiety due to making important decisions quickly. Anxiety can lead to restlessness, fear, and worry, which increases the risk of self-medicating with alcohol or drugs.
- Depression: Medical professionals may develop depression due to witnessing traumatic events and the long hours and stress caused by their work. Depression can lead to fatigue, feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and feeling trapped, which can lead to alcohol and drug addiction.
- Burnout: Medical professionals may experience burnout, which is feeling overwhelmed or overworked. Over time, burnout can lead to cynicism, apathy, and exhaustion, increasing the risk of alcohol and drug use.
Signs of Substance Abuse in Healthcare Professionals
Healthcare professionals experience the same general signs of substance abuse and addiction as most people, such as:
- Bloodshot eyes
- Constricted pupils
- Dilated pupils
- Frequent accidents
- Frequent pain complaints
- Intoxication at social functions
- Poor concentration
- Slurred speech
- Track marks
- Unexplained vomiting, nausea, or diarrhea
- Weight gain or loss
However, there are substance abuse signs specific to healthcare professionals and their profession.
Signs of drug or alcohol abuse among healthcare professionals may include:
- Documentation errors
- Excessive sick time
- Frequent mistakes and unexplained absences
- Frequently leaving work early
- Leaving at odd hours
- Offering to medicate patients
- Opioid obsession
Risks and Dangers of Substance Abuse in Healthcare Professionals
Substance abuse presents several risks for anyone, but the stakes are much higher among medical professionals — substance use, especially while on the job, may put their own lives and the lives of others at risk.
Risks and dangers of substance abuse among healthcare professionals include:
- Accidental injuries
- Malpractice actions
- Heart and liver disease
- Infections from the use of unsterile needles and drugs
- Insurance and billing fraud
Substance abuse can also harm healthcare professionals’ patients.
Some possible consequences of drug abuse among healthcare workers include:
- Decreased trust in healthcare professionals
- Undue pain, suffering, and anxiety
- Infection from contaminated needles
- Medical errors that can lead to injuries, illnesses, and death
Specialized Addiction Treatment Programs for Medical Professionals
Healthcare professionals who are addicted to drugs and alcohol present great risks to themselves and their patients.
Fortunately, specialized addiction treatment programs for medical professionals exist. These programs may be inpatient (residential) or outpatient. Generally speaking, more intensive programs, such as inpatient programs with access to medical detox, offer the greatest benefits.
Here are the most common types of specialized addiction treatment programs.
Trauma-informed care is a group of therapies that recognizes the impact of trauma on an individual’s life and focuses on creating a supportive and safe environment for healing.
Physician health programs that address addiction may offer the following trauma-informed practices:
- Trauma-informed policies and procedures to make clients feel safe and avoid re-traumatization
- Comfort plans for helping patients recognize and respond to distressing situations
- A calming sensory environment for helping clients feel more safe, relaxed, and secure
- Trauma-informed treatment facility design, such as private single rooms with ensuite bathrooms
Behavioral therapy includes a broad range of therapies for changing maladaptive behaviors.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is psychotherapy that tries to change negative behaviors and thoughts. It is based on the idea that negative thoughts and behaviors can lead to mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
- Acceptance and commitment (ACT) therapy encourages people to accept negative feelings and experiences and learn to live in the present to improve their overall well-being.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) helps people overcome trauma, especially PTSD. EMDR therapists guide patients into making various types of bilateral stimulation, such as eye movements. The idea is to stimulate the brain’s natural healing processes and help the patient process their trauma in an adaptive manner.
Group therapy occurs when a group of patients with similar experiences meet to talk about their problems. One or two therapists supervise these groups.
Group therapy is a very effective form of treatment for substance abuse and addiction since it creates a sense of accountability and community. It also reminds healthcare professionals that there are other healthcare professionals struggling with alcohol and drug addiction.
Alternative therapies for healthcare providers include therapies like:
- Adventure therapy encourages healthcare professionals to participate in adventurous activities like playing games, hiking, or camping. It can help professionals learn why they struggle with addiction and how they react to stressful situations.
- Art therapy can help healthcare professionals address issues that led to their substance use and addiction.
- Equine therapy involves caring for a horse to explore emotional issues without judgment. The patient’s relationship with the horse will parallel how they relate to others, and issues that the patient often hides will come out while interacting with the horse.
- Yoga and other mindfulness-based therapies can help patients increase awareness of their habits to better understand how their addiction affects their lives. This may teach healthcare professionals how to consciously respond to stressors in their lives instead of automatically turning to drugs or alcohol.
Healthcare Professionals Clinical Psychoeducation
Healthcare professionals’ clinical psychoeducation teaches medical professionals about job stressors that may lead to substance abuse. It also encourages healthcare professional camaraderie to help support and encourage recovery.
Clinical psychoeducation can be individual, family, group, or community-based. It can also be illness-focused, treatment-focused, compliance/adherence-focused, and rehabilitation-focused.
SMART Recovery is short for Self-Management and Recovery Training. It is a kind of group therapy that emphasizes self-empowerment and self-reliance.
A trained facilitator usually leads SMART meetings, and participants collaborate with each other to develop and practice coping strategies and skills for managing addiction.
12-Step Support Groups for Medical Professionals Only
Twelve-step support groups for medical professionals are peer support groups that are specifically designed for medical professionals. They are based on the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step method, which was created to help people overcome addictions and compulsions.
The basic concept of this model is that people can help each other accomplish and maintain abstinence from addictive substances.
However, healing cannot happen unless people with addictions surrender to a higher power, such as a religious figure, the universe, or the 12-step meeting community.
Some healthcare industries are dominated by one gender. For example, according to a 2022 Cureus analysis, only 7.4% of practicing orthopedic surgeons in the U.S. are female.
Gender-separate physical health programs can help healthcare professionals who may feel more supported, able to heal, and able to be vulnerable in front of groups only consisting of their gender.
Continuing Care and Aftercare Programs
After residential treatment, healthcare professionals can enroll in continuing care and aftercare programs. These programs provide support to help with the challenges of early recovery.
Aftercare programs can include:
- A weekly support group
- Regular contact with an outpatient counselor
- Help in arranging continuing care in the nearby area, including helping you find 12-step or SMART meetings
Mental Health and Substance Abuse in Medical Professionals
Substance use issues and mental health problems are usually co-occurring disorders in the medical field.
How Mental Health Affects Substance Use Issues in Medical Professionals
To cope with negative emotions like stress, anxiety, and depression, many healthcare professionals use alcohol and drugs as coping mechanisms. Over time, substance use can lead to addiction, mental health problems, and other problems.
Dual Diagnosis Rehab Programs for Healthcare Professionals
Specialized treatment providers provide dual diagnosis rehab programs for healthcare professionals facing simultaneous addiction and mental health disorders.
These professional programs usually involve medication management, therapy, and support groups to help medical professionals address their substance abuse and mental illness.
How to Help a Healthcare Professional Who’s Battling Substance Abuse
If your loved one is a medical professional battling substance abuse, here’s what you can do to help.
1. Discuss Your Concerns With Your Loved One
First, talk to your loved one about your concerns. Tell them you’ve noticed their behavior has changed recently and are concerned about their health.
2. Listen to the Healthcare Professional’s Concerns
Second, listen to what your loved one has to say. Ask guiding questions to explore how their profession and emotions led to their substance addiction.
Remember to listen to your loved one before offering them advice. Otherwise, they may ignore your advice.
3. Offer Support During Addiction Recovery
Tell your loved one that you fully support them regardless of their decision. You can offer to drive them to rehab or therapy appointments or listen to them when they need support.
4. Provide Information on Specialized Treatment Options
If your loved one isn’t completely satisfied with their treatment options, you can help research specialized treatment plans.
5. Help the Medical Professional Seek a Rehab Program
Your loved one may be too depressed, busy, and anxious to search for a rehab program independently. You can create a list of suitable rehab programs and call them on your loved one’s behalf.
Benefits of Addiction Treatment for Healthcare Professionals
Many healthcare workers hesitate to seek addiction treatment due to stigma. They may also be afraid of losing their social status and possibly their jobs.
However, the advantages of pursuing addiction treatment outweigh any potential drawbacks.
Some of the benefits of addiction treatment for healthcare professionals include:
- Helping healthcare professionals continue in their professional practice
- Helping healthcare professionals address licensing and disciplinary issues
- Teaching healthcare professionals coping mechanisms to help avoid potential triggers inside and outside the workplace
- Giving healthcare professionals and their families access to monitoring programs to help them stay on the path of sobriety
- Giving healthcare professionals connections to establish continued aftercare
Cost of Rehab Programs for Medical Professionals
The cost of rehab programs for medical professionals depends on their health insurance, any treatment discounts they may receive, and rehab center payment plans.
Health Insurance for Medical Professionals
Health insurance for medical professionals may cover rehab programs, depending on the professional’s individual health plan and other factors.
Scholarships and Treatment Program Discounts
Some rehab programs or facilities may offer discounts, scholarships, and grants for medical professionals to thank them for their service to the community. Some of these programs may even be free.
Payment Plans Offered by Rehab Centers
Your rehab program may also be employer-sponsored if the hospital, clinic, or practice elects to cover your care to support your journey to recovery.
Barriers to Addiction Treatment for Healthcare Professionals
Despite the benefits of addiction treatment, many healthcare professionals face significant barriers when seeking addiction treatment.
Common barriers that prevent healthcare professionals from seeking addiction treatment include:
- Fear of losing their job and licensing
- Reputational damage
- Failure to realize that they have a problem with alcohol and drug abuse
- Belief in being above the effects of substance abuse due to extensive medical knowledge and understanding of how substances work
- Concern that counselors and substance abuse treatment centers will not keep their personal information confidential, putting their jobs and families at risk
Resources for Healthcare Professionals Seeking Addiction Treatment
Organizations that can help healthcare professionals seek addiction treatment include:
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): SAMHSA provides a database with a search tool to help you find treatment centers. You may be able to filter by professionals’ programs or look for providers in your area.
- SMART Recovery: Find SMART Recovery meetings and support groups in your area by using this website’s meeting finder tool.
- Women for Sobriety: Use this website’s meeting finder tool for gender-specific behavioral health care.
Find Help for Doctors, Nurses, and Healthcare Professionals Battling Addiction
If you or a loved one is a healthcare professional facing an addiction to alcohol or drugs, remember that recovery programs and detoxification professionals are always here to help.
Please get help for yourself or your loved one as soon as possible. Healthcare professionals’ hard work and service to the community deserve to receive timely and professional treatment for mental and substance abuse issues.
Reach out to the SAMHSA helpline now for expert advice on the appropriate level of care for you.