Medical professionals like doctors, nurses, and paramedics save thousands of lives every day and have committed their time and careers to the wellness and safety of others. However, many healthcare providers find themselves victims of addiction, especially alcoholism. Despite their understanding of the dangers of substance abuse, the demands of their jobs, along with other factors, often lead them to heavy drinking.
According to research, approximately 10% to 12% of physicians will develop a substance use disorder during their careers, a rate similar to or even exceeding that of the general population.1 Today our Heartland recovery center is taking a look at alcoholic doctors and how they develop their addictions.
Understanding Addiction in Medical Professionals
Although the nature and scope of addiction are commonly reported and well-studied, the problem of alcoholic doctors is largely unaddressed. This isn’t because healthcare providers are immune to addiction – quite the opposite.
Physicians have been shown to have addiction at a rate similar to or higher than that of the general public.1 Additionally, addiction in physicians (when compared to the general population) is typically advanced by the time it’s identified and treated.
This delay in diagnosis and treatment relates to physicians' tendencies to protect their workplace performance, career, and image even if their life outside of work has deteriorated due to their substance abuse. Although physicians' elevated social status is a major plus, it can also have an isolating effect when they’re confronted with addiction and its stigma. This isolation can lead to various repercussions, including a delay in recognition and intervention of the disease process, as well as the risk of death by inadvertent intoxication, overdose, or suicide.
Further causes for delay in the diagnosis of substance abuse in medical professionals include fear on the part of the physician that disclosure of their addiction might lose them not only their prestige but also their license to practice medicine. What’s more, a physician’s family members and coworkers will often keep the individual’s addiction hidden to protect the family or practice of workers from unemployment and financial hardship.
Warning Signs of Alcoholism in Medical Professionals
According to a 5-year longitudinal cohort study of 904 physicians – 87% of whom were male – alcohol was the primary drug of abuse in 50.3% of physicians, followed by opioids in 35.9%, stimulants in 7.9%, and other substances in 5.9%. Additionally, 50% of participants reported abuse of multiple substances, and 13.9% had a history of intravenous drug use.1
Physicians in different specialties tend to abuse different classes of drugs. For example, while alcohol is the most commonly abused drug by medical professionals, only about 10% of anesthesiologists receive outpatient or inpatient addiction treatment for alcoholism.1 Furthermore, certain specialties are more prone to substance abuse, such as healthcare professionals in anesthesiology, emergency medicine, and psychiatry.
Factors like the stress of their job and proximity to substances of abuse may contribute to both prescription drug and alcohol addiction in healthcare providers. However, while doctors have access to a variety of prescription drugs, alcohol is the most commonly abused substance among this group, making recognition of the signs of abuse important for diagnosis and treatment.
Common signs of alcohol abuse in healthcare professionals include:
- The smell of alcohol on their breath or clothes
- Poor hygiene (showing up to work looking disheveled)
- Slurred speech
- Poor coordination or movement
- Hidden bottles of alcohol on their person, in their office or workspace, or in their car
- Decreased performance at work
- Failure to remember events, conversations, or commitments
- Frequent hangovers
- Mood swings
- Poor early morning performance
- Irritability at certain times or on certain days, such as the beginning of the week or early in the mornings
- Out-of-control or abnormal behavior at social events or work events
- Trouble with law enforcement (i.e., domestic abuse, drunk driving)
- Unexplained absences
- Unusual injuries
- Isolation from coworkers
- Poor relationships with coworkers
- Frequently leaving the workplace early
Various steps must be taken to appropriately address substance abuse in healthcare professionals. If you suspect that a colleague or team member is abusing drugs or alcohol, the first step is to review your work policies. Then you can notify the appropriate point of contact, after which an investigation may take place.
Depending on the results of the investigation and the person’s performance at work up to that point, they may be given a leave of absence to undergo medically assisted detox and addiction care and then either be terminated or allowed to return to work after they’re considered to be stable.
Alcohol Rehab For Medical Professionals
If you or a loved one is in the medical field and struggling with addiction, our Illinois drug rehab can help. We offer alcohol addiction treatment for physicians and other types of professionals to help them understand the root of their substance use disorders and develop healthy habits for sobriety after rehab.
Despite their profession, alcoholic doctors may be in denial about their addiction and require the in-depth and continuous support that any other person would need to recover. We help our clients understand what led them to this behavior and teach them how to cope with the stress of their jobs and the aftermath of their substance use.