Physician Health Programs Help Doctors Struggling with Prescription Drugs

Physician Health Programs Help Doctors Struggling with Prescription DrugsWhen we think about the prescription drug epidemic few of us include the doctors who prescribe those drugs. And yet around 10-15 percent of physicians wind up dealing with substance abuse at some point in their lives, mostly in the form of prescription drug abuse. Though this is roughly equivalent to rates among the general population, doctors who use substances while still in practice are a risk to their patients and can harm to public confidence. Few physicians are willing to risk seeking treatment for fear of their addiction being discovered, but physician health programs (PHPs) were designed to overcome this very hurdle.

PHPs permit doctors to receive treatment with relative privacy and without losing everything. They do require doctors to be monitored for years after treatment to ensure patient safety, but this also helps the health provider to remain sober.

According to a 2011 study, close to 60-75 percent of the doctors who take part in a PHP stay sober with zero relapses five years out from treatment. This is a remarkably high success rate and suggests that more doctors would benefit from taking part. However, we are left with two big questions: Why do doctors misuse drugs, and how can we convince them to get help sooner?

Another, more recent study led by the University of Florida’s Lisa J. Merlo, PhD, MPE, focused on mostly male doctors in a PHP. When asked what was behind their drug abuse most reported self-medicating for legitimate pain, and also to help manage emotional struggles and high stress situations. A few admitted to taking prescription drugs for purely recreational purposes.

Like the rest of America, most of the doctor’s drug habits started after taking medication to cope with a chronic pain issue such as surgery or trauma. As with so many others, the doctors reported finding that the medications were also helpful in minimizing stress, depression or anxiety. Many doctors said they had assumed they should be capable of handling these kinds of personal issues simply because there was an M.D. behind their name.

Although doctors turn to prescription drugs for the same reasons as most Americans, interventions with physicians needs to be a bit more specialized. The success of PHPs shows that when a physician is given the option to get treatment without losing their career some will grab hold.

The success of PHPs should be heralded within the medical community, but prevention is even more desirable. The message and warning needs to be driven home during medical school. Training staff and mentors should emphasize that physicians need to involve another doctor when seeking treatment for pain or emotional concerns.

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