Why do some healthcare professionals struggle with addiction?
Individuals who work in healthcare are responsible for ensuring the health and safety of countless individuals. Healthcare professionals include nurses, health aides, technicians, and physicians, among many other professions.
Ironically, this type of work is often extremely taxing to the health of the workers themselves! Sleep deprivation, work-related stress, and constant exposure to trauma, illness, and death can take a toll. As a result, many healthcare professionals turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope and self-medicate.
People who work in the healthcare field are not particularly more likely to develop a drug or alcohol addiction than the general population. More importantly, the nature of their addictions is often unique. Medical professionals often have greater access to prescription drugs than people working in other fields. As a result, they have significantly higher rates of prescription drug abuse, with especially high rates of benzodiazepine and opioid abuse. The ease with which they can access prescription drugs also sometimes complicates addiction treatment for healthcare workers.
Healthcare Professionals and Substance Abuse
It is sometimes difficult to recognize when a medical professional has a substance use disorder. This is partly because healthcare workers often find it easy to procure the drugs they crave. Often the most visible signs of addiction occur when a person goes to great lengths to obtain drugs and alcohol. Because healthcare professionals do not struggle in the same way, it is far easier for them to conceal the tell-tale signs of chemical dependence.
Moreover, medical professionals are often highly functional addicts. The term “functional addict” is something of a misnomer since anyone with an addiction is not truly functional. While many healthcare professionals are indeed able to abuse drugs and alcohol while balancing their careers, this is not necessarily a good thing. Others may not notice the substance abuse at all. When they do, they may dismiss it and say, “How can someone save lives and carry out so many responsibilities while being an addict?” The answer is that the pressure of these responsibilities is often what drives healthcare professionals to substance abuse in the first place!
While healthcare professionals do not always make their addictions obvious, it is usually possible to recognize a substance use disorder by looking out for specific signs. Signs of a drug or alcohol addiction in medical professionals include:
- Choosing night shifts to avoid supervision and make it easier to procure prescription drugs
- Switching jobs often
- Volunteering to be the one who administers drugs to patients
- Falling asleep between shifts or on the job
- Taking more bathroom breaks than normal
- Unexplained absences
- Increased reluctance to work overtime
- Unexplained financial problems
- Relationship problems or family conflicts
- Small pupils or glassy eyes
- Smelling of breath mints, mouthwash, or alcohol
- Increased errors in paperwork
- Becoming overly friendly with doctors who prescribe medications
If you or a loved one who is a medical professional is exhibiting any of these signs, now is a good time to seek clinical addiction treatment.
Facts and Statistics on Healthcare Professionals and Substance Abuse
Approximately one in ten doctors suffer from a substance use disorder at some point during their careers. These rates are especially high in certain medical fields. Healthcare professionals who work in emergency medicine, surgery, anesthesiology, and psychiatry are far more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. These addictions emerge because of stress, and they are helped along by the fact that doctors have easy access to prescription drugs.
Even medical professionals who do not develop addictions tend to abuse drugs. According to a study published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, approximately 69% of doctors admit to abusing prescription drugs. According to these doctors, they do so to alleviate the stresses of the job as well as emotional and physical pain. Given that this study was based on doctors self-reporting their drug abuse, it can be surmised that the actual rate of substance abuse among medical professionals is likely far higher than 69%.
What Drugs are Healthcare Professionals Abusing?
Medical professionals have access to a wide range of prescription drugs, as well as legal recreational drugs like alcohol. By far the most commonly abused substance among medical professionals is alcohol. However, prescription drug use among medical professionals is 5 times higher than in the general population. When it comes to prescription drugs, doctors have plenty of options, though most of them primarily resort to abusing opioid painkillers, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety medications.
Doctors may take painkillers initially to treat actual chronic pain or pains associated with injuries. They may start off taking painkillers for recreational purposes as well. No matter how they start off taking painkillers, the fact remains that prescription painkillers are highly addictive. Most painkillers are drugs in the opioid class. Opioids, which include heroin among them, provide an intensely euphoric “high” in addition to their pain-relieving properties. The synthetic opioids that are most frequently used in the treatment of pain are often far stronger than heroin — and even more addictive. These drugs include fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and morphine.
In most cases, doctors are very knowledgeable about the drugs they are taking. They may recognize that prescription opioids are highly addictive. Often it is this very awareness that is their downfall. Believing that their knowledge will prevent them from developing an addiction, it is very easy for medical professionals to develop a chemical dependency. They may find themselves in denial and claim to be in full control of their opioid use. By the time a full-blown addiction develops, it may be too late. Deaths due to opioid overdose in 2018 added up to 46,802.
Given the enormous amount of pressure medical professionals face in their work life, it is no surprise that many of them suffer from anxiety disorders. After countless hours of overtime in stressful and even traumatic environments, many healthcare professionals struggle to “turn off” even when they are back home with their families. It is no surprise, then, that many doctors and healthcare professionals abuse anti-anxiety medications.
Most anti-anxiety medications fall into the category of benzodiazepines. Common benzodiazepines include diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), and clonazepam (Klonopin), among many others. These sedatives offer a short-term remedy for anxiety, but over the long run, they are very addictive. Benzodiazepine abuse can lead to blackouts, cognitive problems, mood problems, and even an increase in anxiety. Chemical dependence on benzodiazepines is extremely difficult to fight, and the withdrawal symptoms can be so severe that seizures, comas, and even death are possible consequences.
Antidepressants are rarely considered a common drug of abuse. They do not provide a “high,” so recreational abuse of antidepressants is rare. In most cases, people take antidepressants to treat the legitimate mental health condition of depression. They do so under the guidance and careful supervision of a psychiatrist. However, because doctors can write their own prescriptions, it is common for them to avoid seeing a psychiatrist about their depression. Instead, they may choose to prescribe antidepressants or other mood stabilizers to themselves. While they are not likely to overdose or become addicted to antidepressants, this kind of self-medication is generally harmful.
Healthcare Professionals and Alcohol Abuse
Alcohol is by far the most commonly abused substance among doctors and healthcare professionals. Alcohol use disorders are also more frequent among doctors than they are among the general population. The rate of alcohol use disorders among the general population is 6.2%. For physicians, this rate is two to three times higher: 12.9% of male doctors and 21.9% of female doctors abuse alcohol regularly. They often do so while working hard to meet their duties at work. For this reason, much of the alcohol abuse that healthcare professionals engage in occurs on the weekends or during their limited downtime.
Since healthcare professionals often drink when they are not working (and they work a lot), drinking is often crammed into short periods of time. As such, medical professionals have especially high rates of binge drinking. Binge drinking is by far the most dangerous method of consuming alcohol. It involves drinking a large number of alcoholic beverages in a short span of time. Individuals who binge drink are far more likely to become dangerously intoxicated, which can increase the likelihood of automobile accidents, risk-taking behavior, and alcohol overdoses.
Physicians who binge drink may not recognize their alcohol abuse problem. Many people have an idea of how an alcoholic behaves that is not accurate. The myth is that people with alcohol addictions drink every day, from the time they wake up to the time they go to sleep. Medical professionals who only drink on weekends may be liable to think that they do not have a problem because they can function while they are working. In truth, their binge drinking may be exposing them to more risks than people who drink daily.
Healthcare Professionals and Mental Health
Healthcare workers devote their lives to helping people who are physically and emotionally sick. As a result, they often tend to neglect their own needs. The pressure that healthcare workers face while on the job can result in significant emotional distress. It is not just the pressures of succeeding in the competitive healthcare industry that lead to stress. The nature of the work itself can also cause mental health issues. Studies indicate that nurses, doctors, and emergency responders all face a high risk of multiple mental health disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and substance use disorder.
Unfortunately, the mental health problems that physicians and healthcare workers face can easily lead to substance abuse problems. 50% of people who suffer from mental health problems also develop addictions to drugs or alcohol. The relationship goes both ways: roughly half of all individuals with addictions also have comorbid mental health disorders. This is because both conditions tend to exacerbate each other. Many healthcare workers turn to drugs or alcohol as a way of relieving the emotional distress they feel. While these substances may indeed provide temporary relief, ultimately they are likely to make the initial problem worse. Thus, many healthcare workers find themselves in a vicious cycle.
Getting proper treatment for comorbid mental health disorders and substance abuse problems requires clinical care for both conditions. No matter how high-quality addiction treatment is, if it does not address the underlying mental health problems, relapse is likely. This is because when conditions like depression or anxiety flare-up, a person is likely to reach for drugs or alcohol once again, even if they have been sober for some time. Fortunately, high-quality outpatient rehabs offer integrated treatment, which combines treatment for both mental health disorders and addiction.
Preventing Substance Abuse with Healthcare Professionals
Physicians and other healthcare workers need to recognize that just because they heal others, does not mean they are immune to physical and mental health conditions. When a healthcare worker develops a substance use disorder, they require treatment just as much as anyone else does. Unfortunately, many healthcare workers are reluctant to seek treatment. Shame is often a major factor that prevents health care workers from enrolling in addiction treatment programs. Physicians and other healthcare workers who are used to relying on themselves may struggle to admit that they have no control over their drug or alcohol use.
It is also common for healthcare workers to fear losing their jobs. They may worry that if their addiction is discovered, they will get fired. Many also fear that enrolling in an addiction treatment program will mean taking time off of work. Healthcare workers need to recognize that they are actually far more likely to lose their jobs if they continue to abuse drugs and alcohol. Over time, even the most “functional” addict will progressively lose more and more control. Moreover, the vast majority of employers, from hospitals and medical clinics to private practices, are supportive when healthcare workers begin addressing their substance use disorders.
Treatment Options for Healthcare Professionals Struggling with Substance Abuse
Healthcare workers do not need to take time off of work or quit their jobs to begin an addiction treatment program. Outpatient programs are recommended for healthcare workers with busy careers. Outpatient programs are clinical addiction treatment programs that do not require clients to uproot themselves or move into rehab. Clients attend rehab once a week, or several times a week, depending on the severity of their addiction. While taking some time off work is sometimes necessary for individuals whose addictions have made it difficult to function, the vast majority of healthcare workers find that they can pursue addiction recovery while meeting their work and family commitments.
Outpatient programs include multiple levels of care that are designed to address the needs of individuals experiencing drug or alcohol addiction at different intensities. These programs include:
- Partial hospitalization programs (PHPs). Partial hospitalization programs meet most days of the week, often for several hours. PHPs offer the most acute addiction treatment among outpatient programs. They aim to help clients stay off drugs and alcohol while restoring their basic functionality.
- Intensive outpatient programs (IOPs). Intensive outpatient programs are the next level down, meeting several times a week for a few hours each session. IOPs are designed to help clients develop the coping skills they need to avoid relapse and rebuild their lives.
- Outpatient programs (OPs). Outpatient programs generally meet once a week for one or two hours. These programs aim to support clients as they develop their lives in the outside world and face the challenges of early sobriety.
- Aftercare planning. After finishing rehab, it is important to have a plan in place to maintain sobriety. Quality outpatient rehabs offer aftercare planning services to help graduates ensure that they continue feeling supported even after leaving their addiction treatment program. Common elements of aftercare include therapy, 12-step programs, and support groups.
Addiction Recovery at NuView Treatment Center
NuView Treatment Center is an outpatient rehab located in West Los Angeles. Our modern facility employs highly trained staff members who utilize the latest evidence-based treatment modalities. At NuView Treatment Center, we offer every level of care, including integrated treatment for dual diagnosis clients. No matter a person’s addiction severity, they can recover from drug and alcohol dependence and rebuild their lives at NuView Treatment Center.
It is our philosophy at NuView Treatment Center that addiction recovery requires compassionate and person-centered treatment. We never approach addiction recovery using a one-size-fits-all approach. Our team develops individualized treatment plans for each client. We recognize that no individual has the same background, needs, or underlying issues. Our treatment plans incorporate a wide range of treatment modalities and therapies, including medication-assisted treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy, group therapy, and skills training. While developing essential coping tools, clients build a strong support system and take strides toward new goals in sobriety.
If you are a medical professional or healthcare worker with a drug or alcohol use disorder, help is available. Moreover, healthcare workers tend to have higher rates of success than the general population once they begin their recovery journeys. Reach out to NuView Treatment Center and get the help you need today.