Which Healthcare Professionals Are Most at Risk For Substance Abuse?

Each year one to two percent of people working in the healthcare field develop some form of addiction. According to Dr. Ethan Bryson from Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, substance abuse and impairment of healthcare workers was a problem once largely ignored. Today, he says, people are more willing than ever to speak up and say that impaired professionals are putting everyone around them at risk, most of all their patients.


Dr. Bryson
is an addiction expert who says no branch of medicine is unaffected, but that emergency room staffers most often seek treatment. People with regular access to anesthesia are one group that is greatly affected, meaning everyone in the operating room, but most of all CRNAs (certified registered nurse anesthetists) and anesthesiologists.

Because health professionals have access to potent drugs, these usually wind up being their undoing. While the person may start out using more common narcotics such as Percocet and Oxycodone, they easily migrate to more dangerous ones like Fentanyl and Propofal. The drugs are not only powerful, they’re also highly addictive. According to Bryson, doctors who abuse them are “dead or in treatment in a matter of months.”

Pausing one’s career to enter rehab can be difficult due to shame, guilt and fear. In many instances, the treatment program is able to guard the person’s identity so that they do not forfeit a career by seeking out help. With a growing shortage of doctors, helping keep the ones we have in practice is wise medicine.

Conventional wisdom says that doctors make bad patients. In the case of addiction treatment that isn’t true. Doctors that complete programs leave treatment with a markedly lower risk of relapse compared to others.

Dr. Bryson also points out that drugs are not the only thing which can impair a health practitioner’s ability. Alcohol abuse, emotional problems, pornography or sexual addiction and other types of mental illness can all significantly impair a person’s ability to perform adequately. Whatever the source of the impairment, treatment is out there and should be taken advantage of.

Aftercare and support at work are critical factors in continued recovery. One-on-one or group counseling is a must after the initial treatment program, and a flexible work schedule that can accommodate can be of great help.

While the medical field is more ready than before to admit there is a problem, there is still much to be done in terms of preparation to avoid the problem or how to handle it appropriately when it arises. More could also be done in teaching professionals how to recognize the symptoms of drug abuse: disheveled appearance, weight loss, mood swings, missed deadlines and a growing number of performance errors are all symptoms of a deeper problem.

While we’d all like to think of the people we entrust with healthcare as being nearly perfect, the truth is that they are people just like everyone else, susceptible to the same frailties and temptations. While those with a greater exposure to potent drugs seem to be at greater risk, the problem reaches into every part of the health profession.

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