High Rates of Alcoholism, Drug Abuse among Certain Kinds of Doctors

About one in six surgeons has an alcohol-related problem, according to a new study from the University of Washington in Seattle. The study found that 14% of male and 26% of female surgeons said they were either abusing or dependent upon alcohol.

Critics were quick to point out flaws in the study. Although the research team surveyed over 25,000 surgeons about their work, lifestyle and mood, only 7,000 responded.

“If you have a low response rate, you do not know if it represents the universe of people you are trying to study,” according to Dr. Edward Livingston, a professor of surgery at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Writing in an editorial in the journal that published the new study, Dr. Livingston said that the study’s findings were inconclusive.

Dr. Michael Oreskovich, lead author of the study, found that surgeons worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs, had children, who are more likely to be “on call,” and who worked long hours were less likely to abuse alcohol. Those who did abuse alcohol or were alcoholics had a higher likelihood of making major mistakes in their medical practice. Alcohol abuse was also associated with burnout and depression.

“It should be said that a number of studies have shown that direct patient harm associated with impairment due to chemical dependency is very, very rare,” Dr. Oreskovich, noting that the chances were less than one in 10,000. Nevertheless, he said the results of his study show “a significant problem with the potential to impair a surgeon’s ability to practice with skill and safety.”

The authors also wrote in their report published in the Archives of Surgery, “Alcohol abuse and dependence is a treatable and reversible condition with an excellent prognosis when identified early with appropriate intervention, treatment and monitoring.”

“However, the findings do beg the question as to why it is that every other safety-sensitive profession has random drug screenings, while surgeons do not,” Dr. Oreskovich said. “Some anesthesiologists are finally undergoing this — pre-employment drug screens, for-cause drug screens and random drug screens — for the same reasons. And although it may not be a popular statement, there’s no reason other interventionists involved in a high-risk practice should not be tested. And I think eventually we’ll get there with surgeons.”

Between 20% and 30% of all doctors addicted to drugs practice in the field of anesthesiology. according to research by Dr. Ethan O. Bryson, an associate professor in the departments of anesthesiology and psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

The drugs they most frequently abuse are in the opiate family, with Fentanyl, Sufentanil, Meperidine, Hydromorphone, and Propofol as their most popular choices. Dr. Bryson found that many anesthesiologists divert drugs meant for patients to their own personal use.

“These drugs can take somebody who is at the top of their game and bring them down very hard and very fast,” Dr. Bryson said. “It is a story that a lot of people are not talking about.”

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