Drug Addiction among Doctors and Nurses

drug addiction in health care professionals

Humans are complicated beings, and not one of us is perfect. Sometimes what you expect from a person is the opposite of what you get. Drug addiction is a complicated ailment that scientists continue to learn about through experience and study. One thing we do know is that the people who are most familiar with the negative side effects of pharmaceuticals and the dangers of addiction – health care workers – do not necessarily take advantage of that knowledge to protect themselves.

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Substance abuse among nurses, doctors and other health care workers is a common problem. While statistics show that their rate of addiction doesn’t necessarily outpace that of the general population, the fact that they have specific knowledge in their field would suggest the opposite. In addition to knowledge, though, many health care workers have access to drugs and lead high-stress lives. It is not surprising that access and stress are strong factors in developing drug addictions.

Nurses Abusing Drugs

While the rate of drug addiction among nurses is similar to that of the general population, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health shows that there is a big difference in addiction rates between nursing specialties. Nurses in critical care and emergency specialties are more likely to use marijuana and cocaine. The theory behind this connection is that these disciplines attract people with thrill-seeking personalities. Marijuana use, especially in teenagers, has been linked to thrill-seeking behaviors, and cocaine is notoriously connected with adrenaline-junkies.

Nurses addicted to drugs and most likely to abuse prescription drugs are those in psychiatry. There is a strong presence of pharmacology in this area of medicine, which means these nurses have a greater access to meds than those in other fields. Also, there is a sense of acceptance of the use of medication to resolve mental and emotional problems, a perspective that might induce these nurses to self-medicate.

Some of the highest substance-abuse rates among nurses are attributed to those who work in oncology. Their drug addictions covered all types of substances, but alcohol abuse lead the field. Dealing with cancer patients and possibly facing a high rate of negative outcomes, such as death, puts a tremendous amount of stress on these nurses. The implication is that they drink to distance themselves from the emotional pain their work inflicts on them.

substance abuse in health care professionals

Substances abused by nurses and doctors include:

  • marijuana
  • cocaine
  • narcotics
  • opiates
  • alcohol
  • nicotine

Doctors Abusing Drugs

Physician drug-abuse rates are similar to those of nurses in the same specialty areas. Some of the lowest rates of drug abuse among doctors and nurses were found in pediatrics and women’s health. Both of these areas use fewer pharmaceuticals, in lower doses and for shorter periods of time than other specialties. Also, these disciplines attract more emotionally expressive people who might have other means of relieving stress than turning to drugs.

You might expect to find a higher rate of prescription drug abuse among health care professionals than in the general population. The statistics, however, do not support this conclusion. Although many doctors and nurses have greater access to pharmaceuticals than the average person, their substances of choice range from alcohol to cocaine, just like average people. Factors that lead to drug abuse are the same as well: daily life stresses, access to abusable substances and connection to drug subcultures.

A Special Case: Doctors Who Administer Lethal Drugs

All drugs can be lethal in high and consistent doses. Some of the drugs oncologists use in their practice are even designed to kill with the hope that more cancer cells will die than normal cells. Anesthesiologists, however, are in a unique situation with respect to drugs and, therefore, at special risk for addiction.

Anesthesiologists work in extremely high-stress positions administering drugs and monitoring patients in a delicate balance between life and death. The drugs they handle are extremely addictive, and in the course of their work, they are actually exposed to small amounts of these drugs. This exposure makes the brain less sensitive to reward stimulus, actually encouraging substance abuse.

drug addiction in health care professionals

In 2005, a majority of anesthesiologists entering rehab were addicted to fentanyl, sufentanil or other opioids. These are the tools of their trade of which they have access to large quantities in settings that make diverting small amounts for their own use easy. That said, there is no reliable data to demonstrate a higher rate of drug addiction among anesthesiologists than doctors in other practice areas.

Some studies do suggest, however, that they are more likely to abuse opioids, an addiction that would be directly related to their profession. Some of the signs of drug abuse are more difficult to detect in anesthesiologists than in other health care workers because their specific work environment necessarily puts them in close proximity to large amounts of drugs.

What’s the Problem With Drug Addiction in Health Care Professionals?

The crisis of drug addiction is no more prevalent in health care workers than in all of society. In fact, it is very much the same, especially now that prescription drug abuse is rising everywhere because there is greater access to meds than there was just 10 years ago. The particular problem of drug addiction among health care workers centers on the public’s expectations and quality of care.

Health care professionals affect people’s lives on a daily basis in a very profound way. We rely on them to help us at our most vulnerable times and we trust them, in many cases, to keep us alive. That is a lot of liability for someone who is abusing drugs. Of course, only a small percentage of doctors and nurses are addicted to drugs, but those few professionals cannot be delivering the quality of care we expect. Drug abuse among health care workers is a safety concern for the general public.

The general public expects that nurses and doctors in some way control our health. They have special knowledge we don’t have. We think they are the healers, and in many cases they are; but because we attribute this power to them, we do not see their humanity. Most people do not expect that people who are educated in the medical field would abuse drugs. We think they know better, and therefore, are able to avoid the dangers of substance abuse.

Because health care workers are human, they face the same temptations we all do. Their jobs are stressful, and they may not have the support systems in place to deal with everything life throws at them. When you combine access to drugs with high stress and a lack of support, drug addiction in a likely outcome. Doctors and nurses do not, however, get the same attention for their substance-abuse problems because we think it can’t happen. Understanding that drug addiction among health care workers happens and has ramifications for everyone is the beginning of solving this problem.

doctors abusing drugs

Identifying Drug Addiction Among Health Care Professionals

Signs of drug abuse can be obvious if you know what to look for. Health care workers have the best vantage point to notice these signs in their colleagues, especially the ones who are abusing prescription drugs. For a nurse or a doctor to get drugs they don’t medically need, they will adopt certain behaviors to circumvent the prescription system. These health care professionals will do things to put themselves in proximity to controlled substances and create overages whenever they can, so they obtain the substances they want for themselves.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has compiled a list of behaviors to watch out for in your fellow nurses and doctors to identify if they have a substance-abuse problem. Some of those behaviors include:

  • Frequent or long trips to the bathroom or the drug stockroom
  • Time spent at work when they are not on the schedule
  • Inconsistent work performance and sloppy mistakes
  • Poor record keeping, unusually bad handwriting and questionable entries
  • Mistakes resulting in drug wastage or insisting on personally administering narcotics injections to patients

These are all signs that a nurse or doctor could be diverting prescription drugs from patients or the pharmacy directly to themselves. In an atmosphere where drugs are constantly dispensed by several different people, it is not difficult to hide the fact that a few pills ended up in the wrong hands.

When you recognize a possible drug addiction in a nurse or doctor you work with, it may be difficult to know what to do. No one wants to be the one to get someone in trouble or possibly fired, but, you have to think about the patients that person comes in contact with and their safety. A health care worker abusing drugs puts a lot of lives in jeopardy, including his own.

The DEA sums up the real dangers: “Tragically, some health care workers have even lost their lives to their drug addiction because the people who saw the signs and symptoms of their drug use refused to get involved.” By coming forward and expressing your concern for a colleague, you could instigate him getting help for his addiction, saving his patients, his career and his family.

When You Love Someone in Health Care

If someone you love is a doctor or a nurse, you know some of the downfalls of these jobs. Long hours and on-call work can infringe on family time and holiday celebrations. The rigors of meeting educational requirements, certifications and licenses are ongoing, and the responsibility for patients’ well-being, regardless of the capacity in which they work, is exhausting.

The desire to help and support your loved one should make you vigilant at looking for signs of addiction like these:

  • Increased absence from work and social routines
  • Isolation and secretive behavior
  • Changes in appetite or sleep patterns
  • Unusual or increased irritability
  • Financial problems or an unexplained need for money
  • Severe mood swings
  • Any unexplained changes in behavior

substance abuse among nurses

Letting the signs of drug abuse go without taking action will only make it worse. Time will not end drug abuse, and it tends to escalate; addiction does not cure itself. Once a person gets to the point of addiction, even if that person is fully educated in the causes and outcomes of addiction, he’s going to need a lot of love and support to get better. It’s best to start that process, even with just a conversation, as soon as possible.

In addition to the love and support he gets from you, your loved one can get the professional help he needs to end his addiction from 12 Keys Rehab. Whether you convince him to call us or you make the call yourself, taking that first step can start the healing. All you have to do is call 12 Keys Rehab and talk to our compassionate, professional staff. They will give you the information you need, and the emotional support, to get help for your loved one. Addiction can be overcome. The best thing you can do is recognize the signs early, accept the situation, and call 12 Keys Rehab.

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The Addiction Blog