We’ve discussed the prevalence of depression and stress in physicians, but what about addiction? While physicians are just as likely as the general public to become dependent upon alcohol and illegal drugs, they are more likely to abuse prescription drugs. A survey of 55 physicians that were being monitored by their state physician health programs for problems relating to drug and alcohol abuse showed that 38 (69%) abused prescription drugs. While certainly concerning, this is not necessarily surprising, as physicians have far greater access to prescription drugs than the average person.
Compounding this issue is the stigma associated with substance abuse. Oftentimes, those who do not suffer from substance addiction believe that drugs and alcohol are something that people can quit easily, and that substance abuse can be solved by a quick trip to a rehab facility. But in many cases, substance abuse is more than mere recreational use of medications. In some cases, those who abuse prescription drugs may be trying to relieve stress or self-medicate chronic physical and/or emotional pain. In other cases, substance abuse may be a result of the phenomenon called “presenteeism”—doctors may be taking the medication simply because they believe it is the only way to continue working in spite of an illness, impairment, or disability.
How can medical professionals with substance addiction get help? One way is to seek confidential treatment to avoid the scrutiny of a medical board or coworkers. Confidential programs can be both outpatient and inpatient, with inpatient programs usually lasting around one to three months. After treatment, patients are able to continue recovering by completing 12–step programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous. However, this treatment option has similar relapse rates to the general public: nearly half of patients relapse in the first year.
A second road to recovery is physician health programs. These programs actively monitor patients after treatment for a period of five years by conducting drug testing, surveillance and behavioral assessments. This path may be difficult for physicians to come to term with after keeping their addiction hidden. However, going through the physician health programs boasts a much higher success rate of 78% (only 22% tested positive during the 5-year monitoring period), and roughly 70% of medical professionals who pursue this method of treatment are still working and retain their licenses.
If you, or a physician you know, struggles with substance dependency, we encourage you to seek out appropriate help. If you are a physician with a painful disability, you should not put your patients at risk by attempting to work through the pain or by seeking to dull the pain with self-medication. If you have disability insurance, you should contact an experienced disability insurance attorney. He or she will be able to guide you through the claims process and help you secure the benefits that you need without putting yourself or your patients at risk.