Drug Addiction in Medical Professionals

Addiction doesn’t discriminate. Individuals from all walks of life seek treatment because their use of illicit drugs or alcohol has taken control of their life. Professionals in a variety of industries are at risk for drug use, and this is especially true in high-stress careers. This includes medical professionals, who are not immune to the devastating consequences of drug addiction or alcohol abuse.

Although still considered a quiet epidemic, drug use and addiction are becoming a significant problem in the medical field. In fact, over 100,000 health care professionals are believed to struggle with drug dependence or drug abuse, according to USA Today. Other literature puts the incidence rate at 10 to 15 percent of medical professionals battling alcohol and drug addiction.


Even though it’s a priority for most medical professionals to follow the rules in place concerning on-the-job use of alcohol or illicit drugs, there’s a large group of health care workers who don’t follow these rules simply because their addiction has taken control of their lives.

The Uniqueness of Drug Addiction in Medical Professionals

In general, the community has exceptional trust for the health care professionals who provide their care. As such, drug addiction in medical professionals often goes unnoticed. A health care provider’s struggle with alcohol and illicit drugs may go undetected until they endanger themselves, their coworkers or their patients.

Medical professionals face circumstances that are uniquely different from other individuals who struggle with addiction or substance abuse. In addition to the extraordinary stressors of the occupation — including the long hours and the day-to-day stressful responsibilities of the job — most health care professionals also have access to prescription medication. For these reasons, health care workers should be aware of the added risk of abusing prescription drugs and addiction that is present in the field.

In addition, it’s up to the worker to step forward to seek help before the addiction creates a problem, not only for that person but for the people in their lives. The first step toward prevention and recovery is awareness and understanding of each of the unique circumstances influencing the rising problem of drug addiction in medical professionals.


It’s essential for medical professionals to learn more about:

  • The common drug use behaviors among medical professionals.
  • Why health care professionals are at a higher risk for drug addiction.
  • Which medical professionals are at risk for drug addiction.
  • What the drugs of choice are among medical professionals.
  • How drug addiction in health care providers can influence patients in their care.
  • How drug rehab can help medical professionals.

Common Drug Use Among Medical Professionals

In most situations, there are warnings signs that addiction has become a problem. This is true no matter who you are. Whether you have become concerned about your own alcohol or illicit drug use or you have noticed the possibility of addiction in a coworker, understanding the warning signs is helpful for intervention — before drug use puts patients in danger.

Medical professionals may exhibit specific behaviors in the workplace related to the substance abuse problem. These are the most common clues drug addicted medical professionals display:

  • Decreased work attendance. One of the first signs of drug addiction in medical professionals is increased absences from work. This could include calling off work, but it may also include leaving work unexpectedly or simply failing to show up without notifying superiors. Medical professionals with a drug addiction may stroll into work late, often try to leave work early, struggle to make appointments, or have trouble meeting deadlines.
  • Lackluster or inconsistent work performance. When substance abuse has become a problem, it often bleeds over into work performance. Exhibiting confusion and forgetting important work details or events are just two of many examples that demonstrate subpar work performance. In some cases, the health care worker’s performance at work may seem to roller coaster up and down, as they sometimes perform extremely well and at other times exhibit incompetence.
  • Risky behaviors. Over time, supervisors and coworkers may notice a heavier depletion of drug inventory than typical. Some may even observe a coworker writing prescriptions for abnormally large amounts of narcotics. Some medical professionals may even demand to administer injection medications when it’s not their responsibility.
  • Unstable mental health. At times, drugs will increase feelings and behaviors associated with a preexisting mental health condition. This could display as increasingly anxious feelings and behaviors or actions or feelings associated with depression, such as hopelessness or isolation.
  • Struggles in personal life. The personal life of a drug addicted medical professional also suffers. A physician’s personal appearance may become sloppy, for example, and they may isolate themselves from their relationships.


When behaviors such as these begin to surface, they’re often signs of a much bigger problem than the occasional misuse of prescription drugs, alcohol or illicit drugs. If you are working with someone who reveals these behaviors or if you are beginning to display these behaviors, drug addiction could be to blame.

Why Does Drug Addiction in Health Care Professionals Occur?

Health care is a unique industry to work in, with many factors and circumstances that set it apart from any other profession. The factors that attract individuals to the medical profession may also eventually become the stressors that contribute to their addiction or misuse of alcohol and drugs.


The following are some of the reasons why certain medical professionals might turn to prescription drug dependency.

Hefty Responsibilities

Patients rely on health care workers’ expertise to maintain their health. The people in their care have entrusted them with their well-being. In some cases, health care workers are responsible for life and death decisions. The weight of this responsibility can create an incredible amount of pressure to perform well every second you are on the clock.

Long Work Hours

For many health care workers, each shift is a fast-paced day filled with more tasks and paperwork than one person can handle. Some nurses report working well beyond their scheduled 12-hour shifts. Others confess they have to skip breaks or lunch in order to keep up with their patient load.

Access and Exposure to Prescription Medications, Including Narcotics
Health care professionals have daily access to prescription medications. Physicians write prescriptions for narcotics and other addictive substances, while nurses have daily drug access to administer them to their patients. Sometimes, when the circumstances of their lives become too stressful or if they are struggling with mental illness, the temptation provided by easy access to addictive substances becomes more than some health care providers are able to resist.


Professionals working in the health care field are more likely to self-diagnose and self-medicate. While their intentions are good, this can lead to misuse of drugs and eventually an addiction. It is important for all individuals using prescription drugs to be monitored by a doctor, even when they are a doctor themselves.


Personal Stress

Just like any other individual, health care workers can be affected by mental illness or personal stressors, which work together with the unique stressors of their job to increase the risk for drug addiction.

Staying Vigilant Is Key

It is crucial that professionals working in hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and other health care facilities be aware of the risks they face. Taking preventative steps to circumvent these risks could protect you and your coworkers from the devastating effects of drug addiction. Both management and subordinates can work together to create a safe workplace and keep a lookout for signs of a developing problem with drug abuse or addiction.

Which Medical Professionals are at Risk for Drug Addiction?

Although all medical professionals are at an increased risk of developing a drug addiction or substance abuse problems, there are certain professionals who are especially in danger of developing a drug dependence. They are:

  • Emergency room (ER) employees. ER workers are at an increased risk of drug use due to the fast-paced nature of their jobs. In some cases, drug use begins as a means of keeping up with their responsibilities but then develops into a dependence over time.
  • Employees working in the operating room (OR). These health care professionals often have access to anesthesia. This puts anesthesiologists, nurses, CNAs, surgeons and even pharmacists at an increased risk for misusing and eventually becoming addicted to the drugs they have access to.
  • Nurses working on a hospital floor. Nurses are in the trenches day in and day out, and provide narcotics and other mind-altering drugs to patients each and every day. In some cases, there isn’t enough supervision or internal controls of drug inventory. This can create a situation where nurses can essentially steal drugs for their own personal use. The American Nurses Association (ANA) estimates up to 20 percent of nurses have a substance abuse problem.


But nurses and employees working in the OR or ER aren’t the only health care workers at risk of substance abuse. Other medical professionals at risk for drug addiction include:

  • Dentists
  • Pharmacists
  • Physician assistants
  • Physicians in all specialties
  • Psychologists
  • Surgeons
  • Therapists
  • Veterinarians

Management in the health care industry can benefit from knowing which medical professionals are at risk for drug addiction. With this knowledge, they can move forward to support the staff by providing access to counseling, working to create a low-stress workplace, and putting in place solid checks and balances for drug inventory control.

Additionally, professionals working in the specific roles mentioned above can take the necessary steps to protect themselves from addiction by seeking out support, taking time off, or even engaging in counseling if they grow concerned about their use of alcohol or find themselves abusing drugs.

What Are the Drugs of Choice Among Medical Professionals?

Often the drugs of choice for medical professionals are prescription medications, including the following types:

  • Amphetamines
  • Inhalants
  • Nasal sprays
  • Opiates and other painkillers
  • Sedatives
  • Tranquilizers

In some cases, a medical professional may take painkillers or a sedative to deal with a temporary situation, such as a sore back or death in the family. Unfortunately, this intended temporary use often turns into a dependence or addiction.

Drug Addicted Medical Professionals and the Workplace

Health care professionals who abuse or are dependent on drugs may experience difficulty in both their workplace and personal relationships. In some cases, people who were formerly devoted to a friendship or relationship will grow frustrated with their drug use and end the relationship completely.

For those health care workers who battle with mental illness, drug addiction in the workplace has its own set of consequences. Forty-four percent of all cocaine abuse occurs among those who have a preexisting mental health condition, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. Not only can the presence of mental illness increase the likelihood of addiction, but the misuse of drugs can intensify preexisting mental health conditions. This could create personal conflicts and struggles in the workplace as a result of increased anxiety, depression or even psychotic behaviors.


Further, since the consumption of alcohol or drugs can inhibit their ability to perform well in the workplace, health care workers who struggle with addiction may be at risk of losing their jobs. And when it is clear drug use is behind the termination of their position, this will make it increasingly difficult for them to find another job in the field.

Lastly, the medical professional who is abusing alcohol or drugs is never the only one affected by their decisions. The patients in their care could be negatively impacted by their drug use. Even occasional misuse of alcohol or drugs can quickly grow into an addiction. When health care workers are no longer able to control their use of alcohol or drugs, their performance at work will suffer. This could lead to confusion, forgetting exchanges between themselves and their patients, or making mistakes that could put their patients’ lives at risk.


Unfortunately, mistakes made under the influence are not the only way drug addiction in medical professionals affects the patients in their care. In some cases, their dependence on drugs will grow beyond what they’re able to afford. Because of this — and their access to narcotics and other addictive drugs — medical professionals may engage in stealing medications from their patients in order to maintain their habit. When this happens, the patients in their care don’t get access to the treatment they need to manage their pain or heal from their condition.

Drug Rehab for Medical Professionals

Once drug abuse awareness is established, the next step is intervention and treatment. While some individuals can quit misusing alcohol or drugs without assistance, most require some form of support for a successful recovery. Outpatient treatment is helpful for many medical professionals, but others may require a more intensive treatment program in order to truly break their dependence on illicit drugs or alcohol.

Even though doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals are at an increased risk for drug use, there is good news. The truth is, medical professionals battling drug addiction do incredibly well in treatment. In one study of 904 physicians, 78 percent abstained from use of alcohol and drugs when monitored closely over the course of five years, according to the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment.


What does this mean to a medical professional with a drug addiction problem? It means they can engage in treatment, confident that with the proper resources and support, they can overcome the addiction — and move forward toward a life of wellness in recovery.

That said, you should know that when it comes to addressing alcohol or drug abuse in medical professionals, there is no single cure for this pervasive problem. What is really needed is an individualized approach to treatment, one that takes into account personal circumstances, pre-existing medical and mental health issues, and the stressors of the workplace.

Get Treated for Drug Addiction for Medical Professionals at 12 Keys Rehab

At 12 Keys, we understand the unique circumstances in the lives of medical professionals. We have seen how the extraordinary occupational stressors, combined with the temptation of daily interaction with narcotics and addictive substances, can work together to make it incredibly difficult for health care providers to maintain sobriety. Drug addiction in medical professionals is a growing problem, and we provide outstanding resources and support to target this problem.

If you’re a health care professional struggling with addiction or you know someone else who is, there is hope for recovery. In some cases, simply acknowledging a problem exists is enough motivation to begin making changes. However, getting help and support from a drug addiction recovery specialist is quite often needed to successfully kick an addiction.

There are multiple levels and modalities of treatment at 12 Keys Rehab, ranging from 30 days of rehab to 90 days of rehab or longer.

Our multi-disciplinary approach uses a combination of counseling, group support, therapeutic activities and medication when necessary to improve the chances of success in recovery. We have worked diligently to create a program especially for individuals just like you or your loved one struggling with addiction. During the time at our rehabilitation facility, you or your loved one will be equipped with the coping skills needed to maintain health when returning to work and everyday life.


At 12 Keys Rehab, we wish to assist you or your loved one in being the best health care provider you can be. We are available for questions 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you are concerned about drug and alcohol use by you or a loved one, contact us online to learn more about the programs we offer.

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