While all professions are admirable, one that warrants respect among the masses is the field of medicine. Our doctors are viewed by all as heroes, especially those they treat and save. With everything doctors accomplish in their lifetime, they’re some of the most humble people who walk among us. However, in an op-ed released by the Los Angeles Times, a doctor described themselves as “no better than the rest of you, but in some ways, we’re far worse.”
Doctors face unique issues, and a long line of statistics prove it. Unfortunately, despite their superhero capabilities, doctors are more prone to alcohol and drug addiction than the general population. Generally speaking, addiction rates hover around eight to ten percent in our population, while doctors face rates as high as 10 to 15 percent. The most common reason? Stress. The other? Plentiful access.
There has been much chatter about physicians and the extreme depression, anxiety, and burnout they experience. The suicide rates in the profession are unprecedented and are nearly double that of the general population. An estimated one-sixth of primary doctors will give up on their practices in the middle of their career. Medicine has never been considered an easy path, but physicians face longer hours, a faster pace, and get less for their time in today’s world. Physicians that were interviewed overwhelmingly responded that they’d start over and choose a different career path if they could.
The Journal of Addiction Medicine released a study highlighting that 69 percent of doctors abused prescription medication at some point to relieve physical and emotional pain and stress. Admittedly, these drugs provide short-term relief for their ailments. However, temptation will play a significant role after prolonged use leading to long-term problems. With the addictive nature of these drugs and easy access, doctors describe it as using gasoline to put out a fire.
Easy access to prescription painkillers like hydrocodone or oxycodone can be a severe issue. In some situations, pharmaceutical companies will send doctors free samples. In others, patients will bring in their unused medication to get disposed of, leading to even more access for a doctor. Colleagues have also been known to write prescriptions as a favor, while others write themselves prescriptions, despite it being illegal.
The odds are stacked against doctors, and another significant issue they face is the hurdles they face to get help. Despite working to reduce the stigma of getting help in the general population, in the field of medicine, it’s considered taboo. Doctors fear losing their licenses or getting prosecuted, causing them to hide their addictions in the dark. With the deck stacked against them, how does a medical professional get help for their addiction?
When doctors fall into the trap of addiction, the odds of them seeking help are low. Despite being part of a community of knowledgeable professionals, medical boards treat addiction as a crime rather than a disease when it comes to one of their own. A doctor who faces addiction is a terrifying topic that should warrant compassion. When you stigmatize addiction, it pushes doctors to operate in the shadows instead of dealing with the problem. Treating it this way may lead to a worst-case scenario of arriving in the operating room intoxicated.
If you’re concerned about a friend, colleague, or loved one falling into addiction, you should understand the signs of doctors and addiction. Although medical professionals can hide it better than others due to their knowledge of the topic, they’re not immune to the eventual symptoms that will show up and wreak havoc in their lives.
As was described above, medical professionals who become dependent or addicted to drugs will resist these signs because they’re highly functional users. Trying to see if a doctor is dependent or addicted to alcohol or illicit drugs is a challenge because they can maintain their home life and careers without anyone knowing.
If you’re concerned about drug or alcohol abuse in a doctor, the most common signs include:
Doctors hold a great deal of responsibility in comparison to the general population. When they take extreme risks like using prescription medication and actively practice medicine, the consequences can be catastrophic and lead to permanent damage or death. Doctors are held in high regard, so their actions are held to a much higher standard. When they abuse alcohol or drugs, it inhibits their ability to perform tasks for work.
Drug and alcohol addiction will lead to selfish behavior without the knowledge of doing so, and not only does it put themselves at risk, but also the families they treat. In many instances, doctors may not accept they’ve developed a drug dependency, but at some point, they have to deal with the problems head-on and get the help they need. By doing so, it’ll prevent accidents that could hurt themselves or patients.
Doctors are held to a high standard because they save lives. Despite their achievements and superhero appearance, addiction is still a possibility. Fortunately, with the advances in modern medicine, the quality of treatment has increased dramatically in recent years.
Many places in the United States cater to doctors in the recovery process. They work diligently to help them avoid losing their practice and license, which is a significant barrier for them to get help. These specialized programs allow doctors to return to work and provide them with tools to avoid triggers once in the workplace.
These are essential areas that should be addressed in treatment for doctors:
Doctors were once pessimistic about their futures when it came to treating addiction, and despite the growing numbers of addiction, help is available. Despite encountering the disease at higher rates than the general population, they also have higher rates of maintaining their sobriety when treatment is finished.
NPR (July 2018) When Doctors Struggle With Suicide, Their Profession Often Fails Them. from https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/07/31/634217947/to-prevent-doctor-suicides-medical-industry-rethinks-how-doctors-work
LA Times (June 2016) Up To 15% Of Doctors Are Drug Addicts – I Was One Of Them. from https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-grinspoon-addicted-doctors-20160605-snap-story.html
MedScape (January 2014) Drug Abuse Among Doctors: Easy, Tempting, and Not Uncommon. from https://gme.med.ufl.edu/files/2014/02/Drug-Abuse-Among-Doctors.pdf
DEA (November 2020) Oxycodone. from https://www.dea.gov/factsheets/oxycodone
MedlinePlus (November 2020) Drug Use and Addiction. from https://medlineplus.gov/druguseandaddiction.html