It’s a scary thought. The people on whom we rely to treat individuals with addiction problems are significantly more prone to substance use disorders than the rest of the general population. At least, that’s what the National Institutes of Health (NIH) says.
According to the NIH, there are three medical specialties more at risk from opioid and benzodiazepine misuse, and these are emergency medicine, psychiatry, and anesthesiology. Of these three, emergency room and psychiatric doctors have ironically the most responsibilities in treating people with drug and alcohol use disorders. This is in line with our experiences here at Dallas Drug Treatment Centers.
This isn’t to say that other medical professionals are immune to drug and alcohol problems either. According to the Harvard Health blog, as a whole, healthcare workers have substance misuse risks that match those of most Americans, which means anywhere from 1 in 10 to 1 in 8 will have substance misuse issues during their career. However, the types of drugs used and the risk factors are slightly different.
As expected, the type of substance abuse experienced by healthcare professionals tends to involve prescription medications, as they have ready access to these substances. Historically, medical interns and students entering into healthcare have long had problems with stimulant misuse as well, partly to cope with the stresses and workloads associated with healthcare.
While they don’t normally deal with patients with substance use issues, surgeons are especially notable. According to the NIH paper, surgeons are significantly more likely to use tobacco and alcohol than the general population. Anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of surgeons display behavior consistent with alcohol use disorder, much higher than the overall American rate of 6.2 percent.
And this is just doctors. Nurses and EMS service personnel in the US also display similarly high rates of substance misuse compared to the rest of the general population.
Why some healthcare workers abuse drugs and alcohol
There are several reasons why doctors and other healthcare workers have higher than usual rates of drug use. Some of these are more obvious while others are less so. Some of these reasons include the following:
1.) Access to substances
Healthcare workers have much more access to different addictive substances compared to average people. Because the baseline genetic risks for substance misuse usually don’t change that much from person to person, that leaves healthcare workers with a higher than usual environmental risk due to their much easier access.
The high rates of misuse by anesthesiologists who can get extremely easy access to opioids, and psychiatrists who have similarly easy access to benzodiazepines are testament to this. The high prescription medication abuse rates of healthcare workers, in general, is also evidence of this factor.
Stress and anxiety are known triggers for substance misuse. If anything, it’s remarkable that healthcare workers do not have higher rates of abuse, given the numerous emotional, mental, and physical challenges associated with their jobs. The fact that healthcare workers are more specifically likely to be hooked on depressant drugs like opioids, benzodiazepines, and alcohol could be evidence of stress being a primary cause of drug use in the field.
3.) Specific knowledge
People with specific training in healthcare are more likely to understand their limits when it comes to drug use. They are likely to be better at hiding their drug use and moderating it so that it does not make an overt impact on their careers or their ability to do their jobs. This often means that you find a lot of “high-functioning” individuals within healthcare compared to the rest of the population.
While most healthcare workers are highly trained and extremely knowledgable, that same training can lead a few to be less cognizant of the real dangers of drug abuse. This can often lead to healthcare workers being in an extended phase of denial regarding their problem.
5.) Peer enablement
The widespread problem of substance abuse among healthcare workers is no secret. However, many doctors, nurses, and EMTs are not willing to report colleagues who may have problems, knowing that it could very well end their careers. Retaliation from peers is also a distinct possibility in many cases, which often keeps many healthcare workers quiet.
Drug users do not always fit within neat pop-culture stereotypes. Anyone can develop a substance use disorder, even the very people charged with helping others beat their substance use problems.
Fortunately, because this is a recognized issue, there are now several drug rehab and treatment programs specifically designed for healthcare and emergency workers. Many healthcare institutions have also initiated programs intended to maintain the mental health of their personnel, which can be vital for preventing these problems from occurring. Shifting attitudes towards substance use disorder have also made it less likely for healthcare workers to have permanent consequences to their careers for admitting or reporting drug use.
Whatever your situation, our team at Dallas Drug Treatment Centers is ready to help. Good luck, and stay sober!