Doctors, Nurses, EMT’s. They are people just like you and me, doing extraordinary things with their careers. We trust them to care for us and nurture us back to health in our most vulnerable states. They hear our cries for help, work 12 hours plus shifts and are mistreated by patients and their family members. They are over worked and spread thin in emergency rooms, assisted living, hospital wings and in the middle of emergency situations. Our modern-day heroes are still people, with high stress jobs and accessibility. These every day people struggle just like you and me.
What makes doctors and other medical professionals unique, experts say, is their knowledge of the hardships of heavy drug use, their easy access to medication and the risk their addictions pose to patients. “To go to a doctor who is impaired can really have deadly consequences. It’s no different than an airline pilot who is using drugs or alcohol in that you’re often dealing with life-and-death circumstances,” said Steve Levin, a medical malpractice attorney in Chicago.
According to a report by USA Today in 2015, it showed that more than 100,000 doctors, nurses and medical technicians and health care aides are abusing or dependent on prescription drugs in a given year. Their knowledge and access make their problems especially hard to detect. Yet the risks they pose — to the public and to themselves — are enormous.
Doctors and other health care workers are addicted to drugs in the same proportion as the general population, around 10 to 15%. Those most affected among medical professionals, are emergency room workers, anesthesiologists, and psychiatrists who are much more likely to abuse drugs.
Much of the corruption goes unnoticed or undocumented. Standards on how to report and address drug problems in the health care world are limited and arbitrary. In the USA Today review of state and federal records, hundreds of cases in recent years where physicians and other healthcare professionals were disciplined or prosecuted for stealing medications and other examples of medical misconduct were uncovered.
USA Today reviewed a collection of government data and independent studies on drug use among health care professionals, including doctors, nurses and others caught “diverting” (stealing) drugs. The newspaper also interviewed addiction specialists, law enforcement officials and medical professionals.
- Pervasive problem: The latest drug use data from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, released in 2007, indicated that an average of 103,000 doctors, nurses, medical technicians and health care aides a year were abusing or dependent on illicit drugs. Various studies suggest the number could be far higher; an estimated one in 10 practitioners will fall into drug or alcohol abuse at some point in their lives, mirroring the general population.
- Easily hidden: Safeguards to detect and prevent drug abuse in other high-risk industries rarely are employed in health care. No state has universal drug testing requirements, and hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities almost never do so on their own. Many institutions also lack video surveillance and high-tech systems to track dangerous drugs.
- Poorly policed: Many states lack rules to ensure that medical facilities alert law enforcement or regulatory agencies if they catch employees abusing or diverting drugs, so those staffers often are turned loose to find new jobs without treatment or supervision. Disciplinary action for drug abuse by health care providers, such as suspension of a license to practice, is rare and often doesn’t occur until a practitioner has committed multiple transgressions.
Depending on the types of programs in place for professional assistance, the structure and success rates vary. The enrollment rate is just barely a fraction of the doctors, nurses and other health care professionals who are struggling abuse.
Based on widely accepted estimates of substance abuse among medical professionals, the programs typically aim to enroll 1-3% of a state’s health care practitioners.
Even at 1%, that adds up to some 50,000 people nationwide: Nearly 9,000 of the nation’s 878,000 licensed physicians, 27,000 of 2.7 million working nurses, and 15,000 or so medical technicians, nurse assistants and other clinical staff. The programs aren’t reaching anywhere near that amount.
The toll also can be brutal for the medical professionals who suffer with addiction — often in high-stress jobs with little help. So many struggle with guilt and despair, physical and mental health ills, and indifferent professional environments.
In 2008, the Medical Board of California closed its physician assistance program. Doctors with drug and alcohol problems still can enroll in private, confidential treatment. But if the medical board verifies a substance abuse complaint, the conduct is punished and noted on the doctor’s public record.
Physician advocates and substance abuse counselors condemn California’s approach. They say less practitioners needing treatment will come forward if they face discipline with no option of being diverted to a sanctioned rehabilitation program. And Private treatment programs aren’t equipped to monitor physicians’ practices when they return to work.
California “is applying a crime and punishment model, which is appropriate in cases where a crime has been committed, where someone has been injured,” says Warren Pendergast, president of the National Federation of State Physician Health Programs. “But most of these people haven’t injured patients or committed a crime.”
Recognizing that addiction is an illness, Pendergast and other professionals insist that the best way to protect patients is to remove the stigma so practitioners who need treatment won’t be afraid to seek it.
“The message we need out there is … we can treat these people and get them healthy,” says Jon Shapiro, medical director for Pennsylvania’s Physicians’ Health Program.
But hoping health care workers will self refer themselves to treatment is risky and put lives in danger. Most won’t seek help voluntarily and having them identify themselves is difficult in the medical world, which doesn’t have much protection for substance abusers in high risk jobs, like flying planes or driving buses.
We need to protect those who take care of us. Removing the stigma of treatment in the health care industry should be a given. We actively rehabilitate and recover millions of addicts a year, what industry they came from should not matter.