Doctors impaired by drugs or alcohol put patients at risk for serious harm and may end up losing their licenses to practice as physicians. Of course, when we go to see a doctor, we usually don’t think about the possibility of that doctor being under the influence of illegal substances. But the problem is more prevalent than you may realize.
According to AddictionSearch.com, as much as 12 percent of all doctors have problems with alcohol or drugs. Of all medical specialties, emergency room physicians and anesthesiologists are most likely to have substance abuse problems. Some physicians suffer greater degrees of impairment than others, but any degree of alcohol or drug addiction is a problem, of course.
Doctors may abuse many different drugs, including heroin, cocaine and marijuana. Since many physicians have ready access to prescription drugs, they may also abuse narcotics or other medications. Doctors may abuse alcohol, too, of course. Some physicians abuse more than one substance.
Physicians under the influence of drugs or alcohol may have impaired decision making skills. Their powers of observation may be compromised and their diagnostic abilities may be impaired. Reaction time may be slowed during emergency situations when every second counts. Surgeons may have poor eye-hand coordination in the operating room when under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Even when a physician does not use alcohol or drugs while working, using only when he is off duty, the effects of those substances can last for many hours or even days and impair the physician’s ability to perform his job properly.
It is sometimes difficult to detect drug and alcohol abuse among physicians because many addicts and alcoholics appear to function normally for quite some time even when using illegal or addictive substances. In time, impairment becomes more evident and physicians may begin to make mistakes on the job, but of course those mistakes may cost patients a great deal of pain and suffering, or even their lives, before someone notices the physician has a substance abuse problem. Some hospitals and other employers do regular or random drug tests to monitor physicians for problems but those in private practice usually have no such oversight.
Treatment of drug and alcohol addiction in physicians may include inpatient or outpatient treatment or a combination of the two. Treatment may include group therapy, individual therapy and self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Physicians in treatment for substance abuse generally take drugs tests on a regular basis to ensure they abstain while in treatment, but this may vary from treatment program to treatment program. If physicians are required to get treatment as a condition of maintaining employment or maintaining their licenses to practice medicine, their continued abstinence and adherence to a treatment program will be monitored closely.
AddictionSearch.com. http://www.addictionsearch.com/treatment_articles/article/substance-abuse-among-healthcare-professionals_49.html. Substance Abuse Among Healthcare Professionals.
Physician’s News Digest. http://www.physiciansnews.com/spotlight/397wp.html. Treating Physician Substance Abuse.
Psych Central. http://psychcentral.com/news/2009/02/25/physicians-with-substance-abuse-issues/4339.html. Physicians With Substance Abuse Issues.