Addiction Among Medical Professionals

Last Updated on August 10, 2023

Addiction among medical professionals is common. Healthcare professionals like doctors, nurses, and technicians have challenging jobs and often suffer from side effects like sleep deprivation and extreme stress due to consistent exposure to death or trauma. Like many others who work outside of the healthcare industry, doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals may turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate and cope. 

Due to the nature of their jobs, it’s critical that healthcare professionals get immediate treatment for addiction. Otherwise, they could risk their own health, their careers, and the safety and well-being of their patients.

Related post: Substance Abuse In the Restaurant Industry

How many doctors and healthcare workers are addicted to drugs?

According to the journal Critical Care Medicine, 10% to 15% of all healthcare professionals will misuse drugs or alcohol at some time during their career.1 Additionally, Harvard Review of Psychiatry states that medical professionals are more likely to abuse prescription medications, with narcotic and benzodiazepine misuse being the most common.2 And according to an investigative report from the Texas Tribune, data from the Texas Board of Nursing showed that about one-third of all disciplinary actions taken against nurses were drug or alcohol-related.3

The rate at which medical professionals develop addictions is high compared to the general population, which begs the question, “Why?” Much like other professionals who are suffering with an addiction, medical professionals may turn to drugs and alcohol for relief from work-related stress or to push through long, hard shifts. However, one primary factor that differentiates healthcare workers from the rest of us, is their increased access to addictive substances. Not surprisingly, it’s much easier for a doctor or a nurse to get ahold of an addictive substance like fentanyl or other narcotics.

Researchers also have other theories about why medical professionals may have a higher likelihood of developing an addiction, such as that they may prescribe themselves medications, which often leads to misuse.

Why do medical professionals have a higher risk of drug and alcohol misuse?

According to the journal Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, certain risk factors may increase a healthcare professional’s likelihood of developing drug or alcohol addiction, such as:4

  • Moderate or more frequency of alcohol use
  • Being in situations when offered alcohol or drugs
  • Feeling immune to the addictive effects of drugs
  • Socializing with substance abusers

Other key risk factors could include:

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Previous experimentation with controlled substances
  • Early first use of alcohol or tobacco
  • Comorbid psychiatric diagnoses

In the shadow of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it’s also important to consider the intense stress and trauma that many medical professionals have faced over the last two years. For some, this pandemic may have been the source of extreme exhaustion, stress, and emotional problems, which are all key risk factors of substance use disorders.

Signs of addiction among medical professionals

Oftentimes, healthcare workers are able to maintain their jobs, home life, and other responsibilities for a time while they are suffering from addiction without anyone noticing. However, common signs of addiction among medical professionals include:5

  • Spending excessive amounts of time near a drug supply
  • Choosing to work night shifts (or shifts when there is less supervision)
  • Taking frequent breaks during a shift
  • Having unexplained absences
  • Excessively using breath mints or mouthwash
  • Confusion, memory loss, and difficulty concentrating
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Interpersonal problems with colleagues
  • Frequent errors in charting or incomplete work
  • Personality changes and mood swings
  • Uncharacteristic unreliability (not keeping appointments or missing deadlines)

How does the substance abuse of healthcare professionals impact patients?

Of course, the substance abuse of medical professionals raises plenty of concerns about patient well-being. For example, doctors, nurses, or technicians who are under the influence of drugs and alcohol or experiencing withdrawal symptoms may be more likely to make serious mistakes and errors, like:

  • Making wrong diagnoses
  • Botching surgeries
  • Administering the wrong medication (or the wrong dose)

Substance abuse among medical professionals also affects their overall demeanor and interactions with patients, which can hurt the provider/patient relationship and, in turn, hinder treatment plans. Additionally, drug diversion (or taking drugs that are intended for a patient) can cause unnecessary harm to patients by reducing the overall efficacy of their treatment.

Other dangers of substance abuse among medical professionals

In addition to negatively affecting patients, substance abuse among healthcare professionals can also result in legal issues or professional disciplinary action. Not to mention, healthcare professionals struggling with addiction are a danger to themselves and may:

  • Face serious fines
  • Lose their license to practice
  • Miss out on lost pay
  • Harm patients

Although medical professionals treat many conditions and help others through difficult circumstances, they are not immune to addiction. They may struggle with substance use disorders just like the general population.

Addiction treatment for healthcare workers

Addicted healthcare workers who use opioids are more likely to relapse than the general population due to certain unique risks like work-related stress and easy access to addictive substances, but they also have very high rates of recovery. In fact, when compared with other specialized populations, they have some of the highest success rates.6 

Regardless, getting treatment isn’t always a simple process for addicted healthcare workers. For some, the fear of losing their jobs may keep them from getting the treatment they need to recover. Also, common personality traits among healthcare workers, such as extreme independence and perseverance, may make them less likely to ask for help, even if they realize they need it.

Fortunately, there are specialized intensive treatment programs for healthcare workers who are suffering from addiction. During treatment, these programs provide the necessary treatment and care to help medical professionals get sober. They also help them establish a strong support system while also ensuring they don’t lose their license to practice.

Just like other addiction treatment programs, the programs consist of:

Addiction treatment programs for medical professionals tend to be more intensive, with specialized support to help them get back into their jobs after rehab is over.

Related post: 5 Signs You Might Be Self-Medicating to Deal With Stress

Get help with alcohol and drug rehab Austin, TX

If you or a loved one is a medical professional struggling with addiction, help is available. Completing alcohol and drug rehab in Austin, Texas is the first step to successfully achieving a healthy, fresh start. With the proper care, you can fully recover from addiction and receive support to manage triggers once you’re back in the workplace. For help, please call (888) 427-4932 to speak with an admissions representative at Nova Recovery Center.

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