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Medical Professionals and Addiction

We rely on doctors, nurses, technicians, and other healthcare professionals to help us with addiction. But who helps them? Over 100,000 healthcare professionals struggle with abuse.

Medical Professionals and Addiction is a critical danger to others

Article Contents

A career in the medical profession has long been associated with long working hours, traumatic experiences, and trying situations. Addiction in medical professionals is a huge issue. While the problem of substance use disorder (SUD) has lowered slightly in the past decade, the rate of medical professionals with drug abuse problems is still relatively high.

Substance-related impairment of healthcare professionals poses a critical danger to the patient, the general public, and other healthcare professionals.

Rates of Substance Use in Medical Professionals

General Rates

According to the American Addiction Centers, about 4.4% of healthcare professionals have a problem with heavy alcohol consumption. While there are many treatment options available to those suffering from alcoholism, the addiction rate among medical professionals has stayed the same for over a decade. 1

According to the Journal of Clinical Nursing, approximately 20% of nurses struggle with an addiction to drugs or alcohol.2

Higher Levels of Opioid Abuse

Opioid use falls under the abuse of prescription medication by healthcare professionals. Other prescription medications commonly abused by medical professionals include benzodiazepines (Xanax) and amphetamines. Statistics show that anesthesiologists and emergency room doctors are three times more likely to abuse substances than physicians’ general population.

A 2013 localized study conducted on 55 physicians showed that 69% of those doctors misused prescription drugs at least once in their career. The reasons attributed to this use were high stress levels and emotional or physical pain relief. Dr. Peter Grinspoon estimated that the rate of opioid use among medical professionals starts at 10% and rises to 15%. The reason for the growth was attributed to the easy access of opioids to physicians and nurses.3

Rates of Relapse

Approximately 71% of physicians who receive treatment and participate in ongoing monitoring have shown a far lower relapse rate. That 71% remain sober, licensed, and employed after five years. Medical professionals also have a higher-than-average rate of maintaining sobriety after treatment.

Types of Medical Professional That Have Substance Use Disorders

The medical professional fields that most commonly have members with substance use disorders include:

Identifying an Impaired Medical Professional

In 1973, the American Medical Association recommended that state medical societies establish programs to identify and treat physicians. This recommendation occurred because historically, addicted physicians either went unnoticed or were treated punitively.

Some of the symptoms of an impaired healthcare professional include:4

Taking Night Shifts

An impaired doctor or nurse is likely to take night shifts, so they have unrestricted access to drugs for self-medication.

Volunteering to Administer Narcotics to Patients

Since nurses or other healthcare workers administer narcotics to patients under little to no supervision, an addicted physician might volunteer to administer narcotics to more patients and take advantage of any leftover medication.

Falling Asleep at Work

Impaired medical professionals are likely to be late to appointments and exhibit increased absences and unknown whereabouts. Increased fatigue and falling asleep at work are potential signs of addiction. Frequent conflicts with colleagues and increased irritability are also appropriate signs of substance abuse.

Changing Jobs Frequently

Medical professionals suffering from substance use disorder might find it hard to keep a job and may change jobs frequently due to their inconsistencies and drug-related symptoms.

Excessive Paperwork Errors

A healthcare worker suffering from SUD is likely to be careless with medical decisions and have problems filing medical paperwork.

Why Medical Professionals Develop Addictions

Stress of Work

The stress in healthcare centers has long been attributed to the increased rate of addiction among healthcare professionals. Many physicians, nurses, and doctors take drugs to cope with the stress of their workplace.

Work Hours

The long and hectic work hours that medical professionals face can lead to burnout and cause these professionals to turn to drugs.

Vital Nature of Work

Many healthcare professionals experience stress due to the weight of their jobs and how essential they are to their patients. Many of these professionals use drugs like marijuana and alcohol to numb their senses.


Doctor burnout is a common phenomenon among medical practitioners. Burnout is usually one of the many reasons why medical professionals turn to drugs for solace.

Poor Work-Life Balance

The abundant lack of a work-life balance in most healthcare settings makes physicians and other healthcare professionals liable to drug abuse.

Accessibility to Drugs and Self-Medication

Many specialists succumb to the temptation that comes with easy access to addictive pharmaceuticals. 4

Why Medical Professionals Avoid Treatment

Statistics show that very few doctors or other healthcare professionals seek help when suffering from SUD. Here are some of the reasons why:

Professional Consequences

Many medical professionals refuse to seek help because they fear that they would lose their license and might never work in healthcare again.

Legal Consequences

The addiction problems of medical professionals may pose a great risk to their patients or themselves. In these cases, it is only a matter of time before the medical professional faces the consequences, often through legal issues. Many healthcare professionals avoid help because they fear the legal consequences that will come from outing their addiction.

Financial Consequences

Coming forward with an addiction problem could cause a healthcare professional to lose pay during a suspension from work.

Social Consequences

Members of the public that know about a medical professional’s addiction might find it hard to trust that individual, even after the professional goes through rehabilitation and becomes certified as fit for working.

Personality Traits

Healthcare professionals’ personality traits are likely to hold them back from seeking help. This aspect is especially true for people that prefer to be independent, self-reliant, and have high perseverance.

Addiction Treatment for Medical Professionals

Fortunately for medical professionals, assistance is available for those seeking help with their addiction. Treatment methods have proven to be effective under certain circumstances. Many programs help medical practitioners reenter clinical practice once they have undergone a successful recovery.

For a physician that hopes to return to practicing medicine, the final goal is abstinence. There is no other option suitable for any medical professional who holds responsibility for the lives of his or her patients.

The usual treatment of impaired medical professionals consists of:

  • Detoxification/medical stabilization: Detox medication is used for patients in active withdrawal or who have other occurring medical issues.
  • Inpatient residential setting: These are programs designed specifically for treating physicians suffering from substance use disorder. These programs are built on the concepts of maximum confidentiality and privacy.
  • Rehabilitation: Rehabilitation often happens in outpatient settings and usually involves group psychotherapy, individual psychotherapy, and other alternatives such as the 12-step programs.

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