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Healthcare Professionals and Substance Abuse

by | Featured, Treatment

Home Featured Healthcare Professionals and Substance Abuse

PharmacistOne estimate suggests that pharmacists and other categories of medical professionals may have substance abuse rates between 12 and 16% (Peck, 2009).  Another suggests that healthcare professionals with substance abuse problems in the United States may be as high as 10% (Hood, 2010).  Anesthesiologists and those dealing with emergencies are more likely than healthcare professionals in other fields to abuse substances (Addiction Search, 2012).  Regardless, substance abuse among doctors, nurses, EMTs, and pharmacists remains a significant issue.  While in all cases substance abuse is detrimental to the individuals and those around them, for healthcare professionals it also puts patients at risk—sometimes life or death risk. Individuals have reported that they or others used drugs while working. In addition, the factors motivating and fueling the addiction may be present due to the nature of their work.  There are many treatment and professional options for doctors facing difficulties with substance abuse.
The most cited reasons for medical professionals abusing substances are high-stress levels and exposure to trauma through their chosen profession.  The connection between substance abuse and trauma exposure is well proven in widespread contexts from childhood sexual abuse to Vietnam Vets, but it has not been adequately examined in the medical treatment field (Addiction Search, 2012).  That being said, the higher rates of substance abuse in doctors and nurses working in emergency situations supports the assertion that trauma exposure and likely post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) contribute to medical practitioner’s addiction and/or alcoholism.
Another issue contributing to medical professionals substance abuse problems is the availability of prescription medications.  One nurse who struggled with addiction to Percocet and Vicodin said that the doctors with whom she worked would actually give her prescriptions knowing about her substance abuse problem (Hood, 2010).
My therapist always says that the smarter you are, the more complex you defense systems are.  The majority of individuals working in the medical field are smart, and their defense systems are therefore more complex and developed.  One article pointed out several defense mechanisms that are particularly difficult to overcome for doctors in particular.  First, they understand exactly what the drugs are doing to them, and this leads them into the delusion that they can control their usage and their denial that they have a problem is stronger.  Furthermore, their intellectualization of the symptoms of dependency and withdrawal further decreases users’ likelihood to seek treatment (Hood, 2010).
Another reason doctors and nurses may avoid treatment is the stigma and professional consequences of admitting a chemical dependency problem.  When Richard Ready was a chief resident, his supervisor fired him for prescription drug abuse.  One article pointed out that doctors do not want to just go to the hospital on the other side of town where their name will be known.  For this reason, many medical professionals choose to go out of state or abroad for chemical dependency treatment (McVeigh, 2011).  Several treatment centers actually have special programs for healthcare professionals seeking treatment for alcoholism and addiction.
While there is undeniably a substance abuse problem within healthcare provider community, there is a need for a widespread shift in how chemical dependency within the field is treated.  The first line of defense is coworkers reporting when a coworker acts suspiciously.  Furthermore, reporting to agencies, like Professional Recovery Network, that allows doctors to seek treatment while still maintaining their licenses and ultimately continuing to work as doctors while under supervision and regular drug testing.


Addiction Search. (2012). Substance Abuse Among Healthcare Professionals . Retrieved 2012, from Addiction Search:
Drug Enforcement Administration. (n.d.). Drug Addiction in Health Care Professionals. Retrieved 2012, from Office of Diversion Control:
Hood, J. (2010, December 24). Healthcare professionals face unique addiction challenges. Retrieved May 2012, from Los Angeles Times:
McVeigh, T. (2011, November 12). Alarm at Growing Addiction Problems Among Professionals. Retrieved 2012, from The Guardian Observer:
Peck, A. (2009, August 23). Student Doctor Network. Retrieved 2012, from Substance Abuse in the Healthcare Professions: