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Addiction In The Healthcare Industry

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

February 5, 2019

Drug and alcohol addiction can affect a medical professional just like anyone else, perhaps even more in some cases. When drug use of this caliber is not properly treated, lives of both the patient and the professional are at risk.

What Is Addiction?

Addiction is defined by the National Institute on Drug Abuse as a disease of chronic relapse, just like diabetes, hypertension, and asthma. It occurs when a person becomes unable to control their impulse to use a drug despite the harmful consequences

Addiction is one of the hardest trials a person may face, no matter their professional background. By the time drug use becomes addiction, it will have affected every aspect of a person’s life.

People from all walks of life can be affected by addiction; even those in the hospital industry. A person’s level of education, salary, or even knowledge of chemicals and drug abuse will not determine whether they are at risk of developing an addiction.

Drug Abuse In The Healthcare Industry

A hospital is one of the most stressful places to work, and shifts usually include long hours without many breaks. Professionals in the healthcare industry may have access to an endless supply of prescription drugs, and some abuse them to get through the day.

Other reasons that health professionals abuse drugs may include:

  • self-medication
  • stress relief
  • extra energy
  • access to drugs
  • knowledge of medicine
  • diverting drugs
  • coping with responsibility
  • emotional setbacks

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Healthcare professionals are not simply getting high all day. People who become addicted to drugs most likely began using them to help with an ailment, such as to increase energy, help with pain, or even overcome emotional trauma.

In a review by USA Today, it was discovered that “more than 100,000 doctors, nurses, medical technicians and healthcare aides are abusing or dependent on prescription drugs in a given year…”

Signs Of Addiction Within Healthcare Industry

It isn’t always easy to identify chemical dependency in the hospital industry because most doctors and nurses are able to remain high-functioning while in the throes of addiction. As a result, most medical professionals are in an advanced stage of addiction before identification or intervention.

As a friend and colleague, it can help to understand what addiction is, as well as some of the things to recognize. Here are some potential signs of substance abuse in the medical field:

  • seeming overly irritable
  • frequently changing jobs
  • preferring night shifts with better access to medication
  • falling asleep on the job or in-between shifts
  • volunteering to administer narcotics to patients taking frequent bathroom breaks
  • always hitting the bar on their way home
  • anxiety about working overtime or extra shifts
  • smelling of alcohol during shift
  • frequent absence from work
  • extreme financial, relationship, or family stress
  • glassy eyes or small pupils
  • unusually friendly relationship with doctors that prescribe medications
  • incomplete charting or repeated errors in paperwork
  • frequently misplacing patients’ medications

According to the National Library of Medicine, “approximately 10% to 12% of physicians will develop a substance use disorder during their careers, a rate similar to or exceeding that of the general population.”

Abusing drugs in the medical industry comes with a lot of risks. By helping a colleague quit, you could save them from losing their medical license, their life, or from medical malpractice. Attempting to self-diagnose or treat a colleague tends to be misguided and ill-advised, especially given the success of a structured rehabilitation program.

Most Common Drugs Abused Among Medical Professionals

Prescription drugs are easily accessible in hospitals, so medical professionals who abuse these drugs have no shortage. The most common drug abused in the health field is the prescription opioid, but some will self-medicate with alcohol or a benzodiazepine to settle their nerves after a hard day.

Others may use cocaine to enhance their alertness and energy. A health professional might even abuse an SSRI like Zoloft, Prozac, or Luvox to overcome emotional trauma.

Medical Professionals And Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol is the most commonly abused drug in the United States. Yet, from 2008 to 20012, the healthcare industry had the lowest rate of heavy alcohol consumption among employees, at about 4.4 percent. This number may seem low, but doesn’t exclude medical professionals from alcohol addiction.

Medical Professionals And Prescription Drug Addiction

Dr. Lisa Merlo is a researcher at University of Florida’s Center for Addiction Research and Education. In October 2013, Merlo interviewed 55 physicians for problems relating to alcohol and drug abuse. She found that 69 percent of them abused prescription drugs. Most of the doctors interviewed said they weren’t seeking recreational thrills, and that they turned to prescription drugs to relieve stress, and physical or emotional pain.

Here is a list of the most commonly abused prescription drugs within the healthcare industry:

  • Ativan
  • Demerol
  • Dilaudid
  • Diprivan
  • Fentanyl
  • Duramorph
  • OxyContin
  • Percocet
  • Vicodin
  • Xanax

Medical Professionals And Cocaine Addiction

Nurses, doctors, medical technicians, and others might abuse cocaine by diverting it for personal use, or selling it to non-patients. Most of them use cocaine for an increase in energy. Even though it still has a legitimate medical purpose as an anesthetic, cocaine is highly addictive, even for the medical professional.

Dangers Of Drug Abuse In The Healthcare Industry

Doctors, nurses, and other professionals have a lot of responsibility. If they’re struggling with addiction, patients might be neglected. Mistakes can result in the loss of innocent lives, and in turn, malpractice. Fortunately, health professionals are more likely than the general population to remain sober after receiving professional treatment. The safest way to overcome a drug problem is to seek care at an inpatient rehab.

Where Does Recovery Begin For A Medical Professional?

The first step to overcoming addiction, no matter what you do for a living, is to admit that you have a problem. Once addiction has been assessed, treatment plans will be tailored to the individual.

A lot of medical professionals are reluctant to admit that they have a problem with drugs. This can be a result of fear of repercussions, belief that the problem has been addressed, and failure to recognize the problem. Some medical professionals are forced into rehab, but most discover that it’s an integral part of their recovery.

Addiction Treatment Programs For Medical Professionals

Hospital employees are able to help patients overcome disease, but these same professionals are in no way immune to the disease of drug addiction. Addiction specialists are familiar with treating health professionals, and understand the challenges and temptations that they deal with on a daily basis.

At an inpatient drug rehab, a medical professional will work alongside psychologists, nurse practitioners, physicians, and their peers to determine the source or sources of drug abuse, and how to overcome it. Some areas of focus specific to treating health professionals with chemical dependencies are:

  • how to restore career and reputation
  • the process of returning to a professional practice
  • how to avoid potential triggers in and outside the workplace
  • how to prevent relapse
  • addressing licensing and disciplinary matters
  • participation in monitoring programs

Recovery from addiction doesn’t end when rehab is over. Oftentimes reconstruction of both personal and professional life is necessary—this may include making amends, accepting a probationary period, and even regaining the trust of colleagues.

There is hope to overcome addiction and return to work with a clear mind. In fact, there’s a 74 to 90 percent success rate for health professionals who receive treatment at a drug rehabilitation facility.

Addiction Treatment Modalities

Each person and their history with drugs will be unique. Thus, an individualized treatment plan is tailored to each patient’s personal needs. Some of the best treatment modalities for medical professionals are:

  • Medication-Assisted Treatment
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
  • Multidisciplinary Approach
  • Group Counseling
  • Individual Counseling
  • Aftercare Support
  • Caduceus Group
  • Relapse Prevention

Everyone enters rehab with a different background, but they all have the same common goal: to learn to live life without drugs. In rehab, teams of therapists, nurses, physicians, and peers help clients examine their drug use, as well as their past, and provide them with the tools to live their life free from addiction.

The Importance Of A Medical Detoxification

Medically-Supervised detoxification is considered the best way to overcome a physical addiction (dependence), and manage withdrawal symptoms. Rehab facilities offer a safe place to detox from a drug like alcohol, opioids, benzodiazepines, or barbiturates.

Meanwhile, clients will be evaluated for their individual needs, so they’ll be given the comprehensive care required to overcome their obsession with drugs. Medical professionals often need evidence-based treatment, because upon returning to work, they’ll no doubt be met with further temptation and triggers.

Medication-Assisted Treatment For Healthcare Professionals

A Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) combines counseling with behavioral therapy and medications to treat drug addiction. It can be dangerous to try to quit a drug cold turkey, and the withdrawal symptoms often make relapse seem like a more desirable option.

By using medications like naloxone, naltrexone, and buprenorphine (Suboxone, Subutex, Zubsolv), patients are able to comfortably and safely manage withdrawal. MAT is especially used for the treatment of addiction to alcohol, benzodiazepines, and opioids. The goal of MAT is a full recovery, and for each patient to carry on living a self-directed life.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy For Healthcare Professionals

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy that’s intended to treat a patient’s mental health and substance abuse by modifying their beliefs, emotions, and thoughts. CBT focuses on solutions that come from within and helps clients develop healthier behaviors. It can be a huge help for those in the hospital industry because it allows them to recognize potential triggers, and avoid relapse in a day-to-day environment.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy For Healthcare Professionals

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is a form of cognitive treatment that enhances one’s capabilities by teaching them healthy behavioral skills. A person’s problematic behaviors evolve as a way to cope with a situation or solve a problem, thus DBT teaches clients new skills to deal with existing issues and issues that may arise in the future.

A person in the hospital industry deals with stress on a daily basis, and sometimes that can cater to their unhealthy habits, substance abuse, and problematic behaviors. DBT uses mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness to help manage the stressors of life.

Multidisciplinary Approach For Healthcare Professionals

A multidisciplinary approach for addiction treatment stems from several academic disciplines and professional specializations. Each of these professionals brings their knowledge to the table, thus making the likelihood of success even better. Some professionals found in this approach are:

  • Nurse Practitioners
  • Physicians
  • Interventionists
  • Psychologists
  • Life Coaches
  • Nutritionists
  • Physical Trainers
  • Yogis (Yoga Coaches)
  • Pharmacists

Caduceus Group For Healthcare Professionals

Caduceus Groups help medical professionals overcome addiction, as well as bridge the gap between addiction treatment and support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. In a Caduceus Group, your drug of choice doesn’t matter, as long as you’re a healthcare professional in recovery from chemical dependence.

Anonymity is an important part of Caduceus Groups, which means that in order for them to be most effective, the identity of each healthcare professional is to remain undisclosed.

Aftercare For Healthcare Professionals

For a medical professional fresh out of treatment, and new to recovery, heading back into the workforce can seem daunting. The aftercare support provided by an inpatient drug rehab center can be the key to long-term abstinence from drugs or alcohol.

Aftercare Support provides accountability by connecting clients with support groups, sponsors, and a network of other medical professionals in recovery. Addiction specialists will also do follow-up calls to see how everything’s going after treatment.

National Institute on Drug Abuse - The Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction

National Library of Medicine - Chemical Dependency and the Physician

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration - Substance Use and Substance Abuse by Industry

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration - Behavioral Health Treatment and Services

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