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Overcoming The Shame Of Addiction Among Medical Professionals

by Jeffrey Juergens ❘  

Doctors and Nurses Struggling with Addiction

While it may seem hard to believe that the same person you trust to diagnose a health condition or perform an emergency surgery could be addicted to drugs or alcohol, it happens more often than you think.

An estimated 10 percent of all doctors and nurses in America are facing an addiction.

Doctors and nurses hold some of the most stressful positions in the workforce and their hours often go well beyond 9-5. These professionals may turn to drugs or alcohol to deal with the unending responsibility and the long days and nights, or be tempted by the availability of highly sought-after drugs.

Sadly, most times doctors and nurses don’t get help for their addiction because of the shame, denial, and stigma that comes from being an addict in the medical field.

The Stigma of Addiction For Doctors & Nurses

It can be difficult for anyone to admit that they have a substance abuse problem, but the consequences for medical professionals are even more severe.

Reasons that doctors and nurses may avoid getting help include:

  • Being afraid of having their license or practice taken away
  • Losing credibility among co-workers or superiors
  • Not wanting to tarnish their reputation as a respected medical professional

The shame and stigma that comes with having an addiction as a doctor or nurse is one of the main reasons that health professionals fail to self-report. They may try to get sober on their own, which can be dangerous, or deny that there is a serious problem.

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Lack Of Accountability In The Medical Field

The negative stigma of addiction among medical professionals has helped create a system that lacks accountability.

Refusing to get help for an addiction as a doctor or nurse is not only damaging to one’s personal health, it also puts their patients’ health and wellbeing at risk.

Many doctors and nurses consider it a “professional courtesy” to ignore possible substance abuse they see in the workplace. 

According to a JAMA study, 17% of nearly 1,900 responding physicians reported having had direct personal knowledge of an impaired or incompetent physician in their hospital, group, or practice in the 3 preceding years. Of those, one third didn’t report the individual.

In some cases, doctors and nurses may take this “professional courtesy” even further and have a physician write an illegal script for prescription drugs to feed their addiction. 

I had a job at a hospital, which I loved. I hurt my back there. Doctors repeatedly told me it was going to be fine and prescribed me opiates. I still continued to work [while] developing a habit and still in pain. During this time, I went from doctor to doctor. Soon, I was not getting [anymore] opiates. I struggled to find them on the street. Someone gave me heroin to try for my pain. It was instant love. I had no pain of any kind. Soon my habit was so big, I had to sell to support it.

- Cheryl H., recovering opiate and heroin addict

Within the healthcare system, there are no universal drug testing requirements and many institutions lack video surveillance or computerized systems to track when prescription drugs are administered or have gone missing.

When the responsibility to report an addiction falls on coworkers who see substance abuse in the medical field as ‘just another part of the job’, this can create a toxic, enabling environment that allows the severity of an addiction to go unnoticed.

Getting Help For An Addiction As A Doctor Or Nurse

Fortunately, there are many ways for medical professionals to get help for an addiction without major ramifications.

In most states, if a medical professional admits to having a problem and asks for help, there are addiction recovery programs available that allow them to be treated without having their license revoked. For example, physical health programs (PHPs) are designed specifically to treat doctors with addictions. PHPs can help create a recovery plan, identify triggers and offer long-term monitoring to allow doctors and nurses to return to the medical field once in recovery.

Reducing the stigma surrounding addiction within the community and providing specialized treatment care opens up the opportunity to change the lives of those who are struggling in silence while putting their patients at risk.

Addiction is a disease that does not discriminate and health professionals are no exception to this rule. Fortunately, there are treatment programs in place that don’t shame or punish these individuals, but rather provide doctors and nurses with the tools and resources they need to get on the road to recovery.

If you or someone you know is a medical professional and struggling with an addiction, there is help available. Contact a treatment provider today.

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