Addiction in the Medical Field: Doctors, Nurses, and Substance Abuse
Physicians and nurses deal with the reality of illness and death on a daily basis. What is abstract and theoretical to most is a part of normal daily reality for those who work on the front lines in the medical field, and unsurprisingly this can exact a significant psychological toll. Many speculate that the high levels of stress doctors and nurses experience because of their frequent exposure to physical trauma and serious illness could leave those who work in these occupations particularly vulnerable to the lure of mind-altering substances.
At the same time, doctors and nurses also know first hand about the terrible consequences that can accompany the abuse of intoxicants, and few if any who work in the medical field are likely to have any illusions about the real effects of addiction on the human mind and body. This could explain why, despite the high amounts of stress doctors and nurses are routinely subjected to, the overall drug and alcohol addiction rates for medical professionals are not substantially elevated above the societal norm. Approximately 12-15% of all physicians and nurses will experience substance abuse issues at some point during their career, and these statistics are very much in line with the levels of addiction that have been found among the public as a whole.
But statistical comparisons aside, these numbers should not be greeted with a tranquil response. Doctors and nurses are literally holding the lives of their patients in their hands, and the thought that they might be making diagnoses, dispensing medicine, or even performing surgery while under the influence of drugs and alcohol is beyond terrifying. In fact, there are scores of anecdotes in circulation about medical personnel making critical mistakes in operating or emergency rooms while apparently drunk or high, and these stories show just how important it is for doctors and nurses who have drug or alcohol abuse problems to get help before things spiral out of control.
Unfortunately, however, there are some obstacles and special circumstances that may be preventing addicted health care professionals from acknowledging their issues with chemical dependency and seeking treatment even when they do realize they are in trouble.
Physician, Heal Thyself
Doctors and nurses become used to people trusting and relying on them to cure their ailments. Perhaps this is one reason medical professionals facing substance abuse issues may in some instances fail to seek help even when it becomes obvious that their habits are affecting their performance on the job. To show such vulnerability and human weakness when you are supposed to be so strong, so perfect, and so consistently competent may seem like the most shameful thing in the world to those who gain their sense of self-identity from being an anchor in the storm for people in need.
Another problem in the medical field is that doctors and nurses can be very protective of their own. Codes of silence can prevent co-workers and fellow professionals from saying anything even when it has become clear that substance abuse is becoming an issue for a colleague, which can be detrimental to the health of patients and the addicted nurses or doctors alike. Of course, one of the biggest reasons why the medical community can be so closed off is the fear of litigation – if it gets out that a doctor or nurse has been treating patients while under the influence, any mistakes or negative outcomes could be grounds for a lawsuit. Unquestionably, concerns over malpractice suits certainly helps create an ‘us vs. them’ attitude that can be inimical to the best interests of everyone in the long run.
A further complication is that in many cases, addicted medical professionals may have used their connections and insider’s access to obtain prescription drugs unethically or illegally. While it is true that addiction rates for doctors and nurses in general are similar to those of the general public, the amount of prescription drug abuse among these groups is several times higher than normal, which is clearly related to the fact that those working in the medical field have easy and convenient access to reliable supplies of these types of substances. So when prescription drug abuse is the issue, doctors and nurses who have abused their privileges or even broken the law in order to feed their habits may be facing professional or legal sanctions if they are found out, which could prevent many doctors and nurses from admitting their problem and trying to seek the help they so desperately need.
The Importance of the Support Network
Self-protective instincts aside, the one thing that can be said for sure is that if addicted or alcoholic physicians and nurses do not get the help they need for their substance abuse issues, in the end the consequences will be quite severe indeed. These individuals are bound to eventually crash and burn, and addicted doctors and nurses could end up losing their reputations and their livelihoods if they do not choose to step forward and take their medicine, so to speak, sooner rather than later.
Because of the unique nature of the jobs they are called on to perform, it is vitally important for substance-abusing medical professionals to seek out the guidance and assistance of their peers in self-help addiction support groups. It is never a bad idea, of course, to turn to people who understand exactly where you are coming from and some of the special challenges, stresses, and temptations you may have to face, but it is especially important in a field where the fear of the stigma associated with substance abuse can be so strong. Fortunately, a goodly number of these support groups now exist, and it should not be too difficult for addicts or alcoholics employed in the medical field to find this kind of help somewhere close.
Experts in addiction medicine and counseling always have a constructive role to play in treatment and rehabilitation, and there are a plethora of trained professionals working in these areas who specialize in treating doctors, nurses, and others who work in health care. In truth, the existing support network for medical professionals facing substance abuse issues is vast and deep, and those who have the courage to face up to their addictions honestly and forthrightly while seeking the help that is available to them will have an excellent chance of ultimately winning their battle against drug or alcohol dependency.