Physicians Vulnerable to Prescription Drug Abuse and Addiction

Physicians-Vulnerable-to-Prescription-Drug-Abuse-and -AddictionRecreational prescription drug use has exploded in recent decades. Part of the reason for the abuse is easy accessibility due to forgotten bottles left in medicine cabinets in homes. But when it comes to health care workers, their entire workplace can become a medicine cabinet. One physician recently spoke out, admitting he had stolen opiates from patients in order to support his addiction.

Dr. Marc Myer, a family practice physician working in Minnesota, is an example of the kind of struggles documented in a University of Florida study that demonstrates the prevalence of physicians addicted to prescription drugs.

Dr. Myer kept promising himself that he was on the verge of seeking help, but not taking action. An intervention by colleagues finally helped him begin a series of recoveries and relapses that eventually led to long-term recovery and positioned him to help other doctors in the same situation. The study shows that for many doctors addicted to prescriptions, intervention by peers is the step that leads to recovery.

There’s a long history of doctors self-medicating. Cocaine addiction plagued the father of American surgery, William Stewart Halsted. Lead author of the study, Lisa Merlo, Ph.D., a researcher at the Center for Addiction Research and Education at the University of Florida, prescription drug addiction rates are approximately five times that of the general population.

Merlo explained that most of the physicians she talked with used the drugs to relieve stress or pain instead of for recreational purposes. Of the 55 physicians interviewed for her research, 38 – 69 percent – admitted to abusing prescription drugs.

Dr. Myer’s experience began as a legitimate need. The removal of wisdom teeth came with a prescription for opiates. But when undiagnosed depression created increased challenges during residency, Dr. Myer repeatedly turned to the drugs. He reports feeling comfortable in his own skin while taking the medication.

While initiation is similar to the general public’s experience, physicians are uniquely vulnerable when trying to resist addiction. With prescribing privileges and proximity to supplies, physicians have open access to medication.

As access and acquisition becomes the doctor’s top priority, they will begin engaging in practices that are not in the best interest of their patients. Dr. Myer, for instance, began telling patients that they needed to bring their medications to appointments for monitoring. When the patient was looking away, he skimmed pills from the bottles.

Physicians may also resist questions from concerned colleagues. Performance is often improved by the elevated mood and clarity offered by prescription drugs, so an addiction may be easily swept away by a suspected physician.

The article notes that for physicians like Dr. Myer who eventually got treatment and a reinstatement of his medical license, there are options available before their career is knocked off track. For instance, physicians can enter a program anonymously, and then receive ongoing monitoring once they complete treatment and engage in medical practice again.

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