In our society, doctors are often placed on a pedestal. They are caregivers who are responsible for treating countless patients in a wide variety of settings. Doctors’ paths through healthcare can be stressful, from educational demands to long workdays. These strenuous conditions and expectations can cause doctors to succumb to substance abuse as a form of self-medication. This might be difficult to imagine, especially considering that fact that many doctors are aware of the risk factors and consequences of substance use; however, they are not immune to addiction despite their educational background and knowledge. In fact, doctors struggle with drug and alcohol addiction at higher rates than the general population. So why are doctors on drugs and what can be done about it?
Risk Factors | Why Are Doctors on Drugs?
Doctors are affected by many of the risk factors that influence addiction. Even though they are in the medical profession, influences such as genetic predisposition, a history of trauma, the presence of mental health issues, and other factors cannot be ignored. The demands and pressures of the medical field can exacerbate these pressures, which may include:
- Educational demands: The path to a medical profession is incredibly rigorous and stressful. Some studies have shown that American medical students in particular are prone abusing substances such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, and prescription opiates. Substance abuse may be influenced by the fact that those in the medical profession are expected to complete four years of undergraduate school, four years of medical school, and then a three-year residency program. The pressure to be a competitive student and manage long hours of studying, rotations, and responsibilities outside of school can cause anyone to look for an escape. The environment almost invites substance abuse as a means of coping with immense stress.
- Long work hours: The medical field often requires doctors to work long days and stay on-call for emergencies. Working 60 or more hours a week with little time to spend on family, friends, recreation, and self-care can be incredibly draining. This often makes it difficult for doctors to manage a healthy diet, get regular exercise, and get a reasonable amount of sleep every night. All of these factors put doctors at a higher risk for heart disease, depression, and other conditions that may cause them to self-medicate.
- Interactions with patients: While healthcare can be extremely rewarding, there are always difficult aspects in the field. Whether it’s an unexpected outcome, failure, or simply dealing with a demanding, violent, or noncompliant patient, the ups-and-downs of the medical field can be unpredictable and sometimes beyond a person’s control. These situations can be a great source of stress and anxiety, and without proper methods of coping, many doctors may use drugs or alcohol to deal with negative emotions.
- Availability of substances: Addictive substances are readily available as part of a doctor’s practice. A doctor’s ability to prescribe medications can further compound this issue, especially because some may illegally prescribe medications for months or years without notice. Rates of prescription drug abuse are higher among doctors than the rest of the population, specifically among anesthesiologists, who regularly work with potent medications.
- Lack of reporting: In some cases, addiction is enabled by the simple fact that no one will speak up. Although doctors have a responsibility to report colleagues who practice while impaired, there are cases in which some will refrain from doing so as a sort of “courtesy.” This may be due to a fear of confronting the individual or the possibility of a negative outcome for someone’s career or financial stability; however, the alternative could have drastic repercussions for the doctor and their patients alike.
Resources for Doctors Struggling with Drug Addiction
For many, the idea that their doctor might be struggling with addiction can be troubling. Imagining that your doctor is high or experiencing symptoms of withdrawal can cause many to question whether or not they are receiving adequate or safe care. While it is often harder for doctors to admit that they have a problem, there are options for treatment. Many are reluctant to ask for help due to an overwhelming fear that they may never practice medicine again; however, a physician help program can help doctors receive treatment and maintain the ability to practice again in the future.
Many states have physician health programs set up for doctors who need to recover from addiction and earn the right to practice medicine again. These types of programs prove to be incredibly effective in treating this population because of their ability to adapt to patients’ unique needs. With awareness and resources readily available, both doctors and patients benefit from these programs.
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