Medically Reviewed By: Dr. Patricia Sullivan, MD MPH
It’s a job many of us dreamed about as kids: doctor. Helping people, even saving their lives, On a daily basis is a calling that many people hear, but not many can achieve. The job comes with a lot of responsibility and a significant amount of respect. And the paycheck doesn’t hurt either. Behind the glamour, physicians face a career rife with stress and enormous weight. They often work long hours. This is especially true today as America faces the COVID-19 pandemic. Doctors put their own lives at risk to treat patients with infectious diseases. Depending on where they work, they may also see horrific injuries.
While there are great benefits to working as a physician, the job is hard. Many physicians turn to drugs to help deal with their stress at work. One in 10 physicians will face a substance abuse problem during their careers. Physician drug abuse is a deeply concerning issue for the individual and their family and the patients that the doctor cares for.
If you are a practicing physician and are struggling with addiction, you should know that you’re not alone. Reach out to us for help today at (385) 327-7418 to prevent future catastrophes.
Many doctors struggle with substance abuse but try to face the problem alone. This cycle doesn’t have to continue! Read on to learn about dangers of physician drug abuse.
Physician Drug Abuse is Widespread
Substance abuse and doctors are not something people generally associate together. There’s a misconception that doctors are above health complications the rest of us succumb to. If anyone understood the dangers of drug abuse, it would be a doctor.
The unfortunate truth is that physicians are just as susceptible to substance abuse as anyone else, sometimes more so. Between 10 and 12% of physicians will struggle with addiction while practicing medicine. Specifically, 6% are drug-related and 14% alcohol. This is a relatively average number when compared to the general populace. However, it’s more problematic because of the enormous responsibility and trust placed on doctors’ shoulders.
Why Do Doctors Become Addicted?
Aside from serving the healthcare needs of their communities, being a doctor comes with many perks. A high level of prestige comes with the job and a large salary. While different specializations come with varying degrees of stress, all physicians face enormous burdens involving patient care, long hours, and the overall sense of responsibility. Some physicians are likely to abuse substances, such as anesthesiologists or emergency room doctors. These professionals are three times more likely to suffer addiction than other physicians. The most likely cause of this increase is that these are high-risk careers with constant work under pressure.
Physician addiction often starts because of the personalities drawn to such a demanding, fast-paced work environment. Many doctors, especially those in high-risk areas, tend to be attracted to risk-taking behavior. Others can’t resist the temptation of easy access to pharmaceutical drugs, like opioid pain killers. There is a stigma towards addiction amongst healthcare professionals that breeds a feeling of isolation in anyone struggling. Additionally, physicians face a recovery program that is much more in-depth and expensive than the average person upon discovery of their problem. Many physicians publicly deny they have a problem or keep it hidden while attempting to self-medicate.
You do not need to suffer an addiction alone. If you are battling addiction, then call us today. Our experts will work with you to ensure you get the help you need.
Warning Signs of Addiction
Addiction can be hard to spot amongst physicians. Often, the last sphere of a doctor’s life affected by addiction is their career. However, there are signs to look for. It’s essential to look out for troubling signs, whether you’re a patient, a coworker, a family member, or the physician yourself.
Some warning signs start with the physician. These include:
- Mental illness.
- History of substance abuse or mental illness in their family.
- Thrill chasing.
- Obsessive-compulsive personality.
- Denial of personal problems.
Just because a physician showcases one or all these signs, it doesn’t mean they will become addicted to anything. These are merely factors that increase the likelihood of substance abuse.
Other signs of addiction can be found in a physician’s personal life.
- An increase in aggression, depression, anxiety, or other mood instabilities.
- Legal trouble.
- A rise in accidents, medical issues, or medical appointments.
- Financial difficulties.
- A decrease in personal hygiene.
Coworkers will likely notice a problem once an addiction has progressed far enough to affect a physician’s work life.
- Tardiness to appointments or unexplained absences.
- Pronounced secrecy.
- An increase in patient complaints.
- Incorrect charting or prescription writing.
- Negligent medical decisions.
- A rise in conflicts with others.
- A spike in irritability or aggression.
- Lost productivity.
- Physical signs of substance abuse include smelling like alcohol or having needle marks on their skin.
Finally, patients themselves might notice signs of addiction in their doctor. It might be easy to overlook that the person you are coming to for medical care is struggling, but you should speak up if you suspect your doctor needs help. Just as doctors care for us, we should care for them.
Signs a patient might recognize as unusual are:
- Unreasonable forgetfulness.
- Slurred speech.
- A lack of coordination.
- Irritability, anger, or excessive emotionality.
- Unexpected dishevelment.
A Hidden Problem
Doctors swear to protect their patients; the Hippocratic oath’s core value is not to harm those they care for. Usually, doctors are drawn to their careers with a desire to help people. Substance addiction will deteriorate a physician’s ability to uphold their oaths. So, why do so many doctors suffer from addiction without anyone stepping in?
Many physicians go to great lengths to hide their addictions. One consideration against seeking treatment is the recovery process itself. Programs for physicians can last up to 90 days, much longer than what the average person will go through. They’re also expensive, sometimes costing as much as $40,000. After program completion, physicians face a long monitoring period to ensure there is no relapse or persistent problem. This “probation” period can last up to five years.
In addition to the time and financial commitment, doctors on drugs feel coerced to participate in these programs. Physicians feel enormous pressure to keep their license to practice medicine to maintain their income and quality of life. When it is discovered that a physician has a substance abuse disorder, they often have no choice but to comply with everything asked if they wish to have a career in the future.
This desire for continued access to their salary is often a factor in the physician’s family ignoring the signs of addiction. Friends and coworkers might give physicians more leeway to protect their reputations and guard their business. When a physician runs a private practice, their staff might feel obligated to disregard dangerous warning signs to protect their place of work.
Finally, physicians often safeguard their careers at the cost of everything else. This is a career where reputation is paramount to success. Therefore, addiction might not be recognized until it’s in advanced stages. Call us today before it reaches this stage. We will be able to help you get on a path to a healthier life.
I Suspect My Colleague is Struggling With Addiction
Suspecting someone of drug use and addiction can be extremely difficult to navigate. In the world of medicine, it only gets harder. If you think a coworker is suffering an addiction, you’ll likely feel conflicted about taking action. However, you have an ethical duty to intervene, to protect both patients and the physician themselves.
The best thing to do when you suspect a coworker of substance abuse is to contact the Physicians Health Program (PHP) rather than the state medical board. You can make your report anonymously, which is usually a better practice than confronting your colleague directly. Because of the complexities surrounding physician addiction, a struggling doctor will likely deny they have a problem. Many physicians are also uncomfortable and even resistant to speaking about addiction to coworkers.
It may seem like a physician can manage their drug use without letting it affect their work, but this is simply not true. It’s imperative to report these issues. The danger to patients is too high to allow substance abuse to continue unchecked.
If you are struggling with drug use, know that you are not alone. Many doctors hide their problem from themselves because they mistakenly believe they are above addiction. However, the effects of drugs and other substances on the brain are well-studied. No one is above the addictive force of substance use.
While you might be frightened by getting help, getting clean is the best thing you can do for your patients, yourself, and your future. If you are using to alleviate stress from your workload, recovery will help you find new ways to manage. When workplace events have disturbed you to the point where you need to self-medicate with alcohol or other substances, finding support groups will help you heal in a healthier way. If you feel the need to enhance your performance, there are other options available to you. Consider the surgeon who took beta-blockers to calm his shaking hands before surgery. He was able to complete the operation, but it cost him in the end. His drug use continued until it consumed his life, and he permanently lost his license and job.
Struggling with addiction does not make you weak, a failure, or a bad person. Getting treatment may be a monumental inconvenience, but getting the help you deserve is vital to your future. Call us today and let us help you create a better future.
Physicians and Recovery
The good news about physician addiction is that, after going through treatment, doctors have a phenomenal recovery rate. Abstinence from drug use is the ultimate goal of physician recovery, and this rate is between 74 and 90%.
One determining factor in the abstinence from physician drug abuse is their motivation to continue employment as a practicing doctor. Once recovery has started, the only way forward for a suffering addict is to remain clean. In addition, the intense recovery program and subsequent monitoring give physicians the tools and motivation to continue their recovery.
However, just because the recovery rate is high doesn’t mean physicians are immune to relapse. According to a Washington State PHP review, upwards of 25% of recovering physicians had a relapse. Risk of relapse increase with a family history of addiction or a coexisting mental illness. When it comes to opioid abuse, these increase relapse risk further. Opioid relapse is especially dangerous for physicians due to their tendency to hide their addiction. 16% of relapsed anesthesiologists died without anyone suspecting continued drug use.
Addiction treatment for physicians should account for these obstacles and offer counseling about returning to a workplace full of triggers as well as traditional recovery goals.
Physicians Deserve Treatment, Too
As superhuman as doctors may seem, they are people just like the rest of us. They eat junk food, smoke cigarettes, and sometimes find themselves locked in a battle with addiction. While no one should accept addiction, substance abuse and doctors can be a deadly combination for them and their patients. It’s imperative to report any physician suspected of abusing substances, no matter how awkward or difficult it is. For physicians themselves, self-care is just as crucial for you as it is for your patients. You may face shame or even ostracization, but the only real shame would be not getting the help you need.
If you, a loved one, or a colleague are struggling with addiction while practicing medicine, please contact us for help. We have the resources you need to guide you on your next step towards recovery and the protection of your future.
By Malory McDermott
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