Drug and Alcohol Addiction Among Anesthesiology Residents

Since they understand human physiology so much better than the rest of us we expect doctors to take proper care of their own bodies. But doctors are human, after all, and they make some of the same bad choices that others do. A new study by an on-staff anesthesiologist at the Mayo Clinic found that doctors training for a career in anesthesiology abuse some of the same drugs they are learning to administer to patients.

Dr. David O. Warner headed up the team of researchers. This was a first-of-its-kind study looking at the problem of substance abuse for a medical specialty group still in training. The study gives a comprehensive view of whom, how often and why substances are abused by anesthesiology residents.

Warner and his colleagues sifted through the records of 44,612 doctors who took part in an anesthesiology residency program between July 1, 1975 and July 1, 2009, seeking instances of substance abuse by the residents as well as outcomes. The team also had follow-up information provided by participating doctors.

Drug and Alcohol Addiction Stats Among Anesthesiologists

Those who took part in Warner’s study were asked not only about substance use throughout their residency program, but also about any relapses they may have experienced. Here is part of what they learned:

  • 384 anesthesiologists (which is .86 percent of all who responded) confessed to abusing either drugs or alcohol during their residency training
  • 28 doctors died while they were in residency as a direct result of their substance abuse
  • 43 percent of the doctors who were caught up in substance abuse during residency reported at least a single relapse after their initial episode during the intervening 30 year period
  • The drugs most popularly abused by the residents were intravenous opioids, alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, anesthetics and opioid pills
  • The lowest rates for substance abuse by residents came between 1992-2002
  • The highest rates for substance abuse began in 2003 through to the present.

There was no direct data in Warner’s study which says that anesthesiologists are any more at risk for substance use disorder compared to any other medical specialties. The problem of substance abuse by physicians and physicians in training has yet to be compared specialty by specialty, and the Mayo study does reflect a growing problem of substance abuse within any one sub-category.

It could be supposed that anesthesiologists have regular and easy access to powerful drugs like I.V. opioids and therefore are at increased risk but the study, as mentioned above, does not provide sufficient data for drawing this conclusion. And since alcohol was listed as the second leading abused substance, the problem of alcohol abuse among physicians at large could easily take precedence.

Among physicians in general, 40 percent of suicides are alcohol related and 20 percent are drug related. Just as for everyone else, substance abuse among physicians often serves as a red flag for other psychological problems such as anxiety or depression. When using substances as a way to cope with inner turmoil, it doesn’t help to know the physiological realities.

According to the National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions there are 2.3 million American adults currently abusing substances. Substance abuse is a risk factor for suicide, but it is also a risk factor for a host of other health problems, some physical and some psychosocial. Doctors are not immune from these risks any more than the rest of us.

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