The American opioid epidemic has shed new light on modern drug use. Addiction isn’t a distant secret that only takes place in the shadows of alleyways or abandoned homes. It’s a disease that impacts people from all walks of life — even seasoned medical professionals.
According to the Mayo Clinic, as many as 12% of physicians will struggle with substance abuse issues during their careers. With stressful jobs, long hours and relatively easy access to narcotics, medical professionals are just as susceptible to addiction as the general population. Regulations and resources are helping to combat the stigma associated with addiction for everyone — including doctors — to prevent and treat addiction.
Using Substances to Cope
For many people, a prescription opioid addiction starts with a medical visit. Maybe narcotics were used during a procedure, or pain killers were prescribed following surgery. Some people experience chronic pain and are given opioids to help manage recurring issues. For doctors and other medical professionals, substance abuse can have equally simple or increasingly complex origins.
Like many people who become addicted to substances, doctors who abuse drugs often do so to ease tension or self-medicate a problem. For Alison, a seasoned anesthesiologist in Georgia, opioid abuse began after compounding stress at work and home.
After seeing her husband, a fellow medical professional, use prescriptions fentanyl for relief, she decided to try it herself after a particularly painful disagreement. “All of a sudden, everything was OK,” she told Marie Claire in an interview. “I would say it’s like immediately going from zero to the happiest buzz you’ve ever had.”
Within a month, Alison was using fentanyl, a narcotic that is 50 times more potent than heroin, obsessively. She slipped away to use the drug in her laundry room, in her car and even before picking up her daughter from dance practice. The drug gave her the relief she craved from the stresses of life but it became all-consuming as she spent her time chasing a high to fill emotional voids.
Allison’s story is mirrored by many physicians who abuse substances to cope with stress. At its core, stress is a response to aggression or trauma that creates physical and psychological symptoms. Other causes of stress include fatigue or other physiological issues and deficiencies. At best, some stress is motivating and fills the body with important chemicals to drive quick action or problem-solving. At its worst, stress is a symptom of a difficult life that leads to coping in detrimental ways, such as substance misuse.
Easy Access, Despite Protective Policies
Many hospitals and doctor’s offices have regulations in place to monitor the use and disposal of dangerous and addictive substances. Despite the established procedures, some medical professionals find ways to access and abuse these drugs. Some doctors addicted to opiates may prescribe patient medication, but use the drugs themselves. Others may take unused medications home at the end of the day.
As an anesthesiologist, Alison began collecting leftover fentanyl from patient surgeries. “I didn’t have to ask anyone to write me a prescription; I had absolute access,” she said in the interview with Marie Claire. Although her hospital had procedures in place to monitor the disposal of excess substances, the fast-paced nature of the hospital environment made it easy to collect drugs.
While many practices try to prevent drug abuse among medical professionals, stories of doctors addicted to drugs present policymakers with an opportunity to address addiction at all levels of the profession. Doctors and patients alike can help prevent substance misuse by reevaluating the procedures in place, offering clear training and regulating opioid use.
Humans First, Doctors Second
Doctors are dedicated to healing and helping. Despite their education and training, medical professionals are humans first, subject to all the trials and stressors that life has to offer. While most medical professionals would never intentionally harm a patient because of their own substance use, it is possible. Doctors addicted to painkillers cannot perform their jobs adequately if they are under the influence of substances.
Seeking help for addiction can be complicated for medical professionals. Doctors addicted to opiates often feel paralyzed by the stigma of addiction and may not seek help until or unless they are found out. Like many people addicted to drugs, some doctors may not even realize their drug use is problematic because of the way addiction takes over the mind.
Although she struggled with opioid addiction, a drug she helped administer, Alison was far from alone. In a study reported by the Mayo Clinic, 50.3% of people enrolled in physician health programs primarily abused alcohol, while 35.9% struggled with opioids. Increased awareness and professional programs are changing the tide for medical professionals who fall victim to the opioid epidemic.
Addiction Treatment for Physicians
It is important that physicians and other medical professionals have a path to treatment. Doctors addicted to opiates may feel the costs of being discovered are too high. They may compromise their career if they reveal an addiction or pursue treatment. Alison was given a second chance after her colleagues realized she was sneaking narcotics out of the hospital. Eight months after she began abusing the drugs, her management team sat her down and presented the evidence showing that she had been taking powerful pain killers. Her addiction was undeniable, so she entered treatment immediately. After coming to terms with the disruption in her life and attending treatment, she was able to recognize her actions and work through the challenges that brought her to drug use in the first place.
After attending a treatment program, Alison participated in her state’s physician health program, which includes a five-year monitoring agreement. This allows doctors in recovery from drug addiction to continue to practice while adhering to stringent requirements. Offering compassionate care for medical professionals encourages doctors to admit to and find help for addiction instead of bottling it up or denying it.
Local physician health programs support medical professionals in recovery while encouraging an understanding reaction to drug use and a clear opportunity for continued health. Doctors dedicate their lives to the profession, so ensuring they have a path to practice after managing their own addiction is important to encourage long-term healing.
Now in recovery, Alison works in a different practice but takes additional measures to ensure that she and her employer are responsible. And while some may question medical professionals in recovery who choose to practice again after abusing the opioids they once worked with, Alison knows that her journey has made her a more empathetic provider. By understanding the challenges of substance use, she and other doctors can aid patients and their families in navigating the complex medical, emotional and mental issues involved with addiction.
Adler, Kayla Webley. “I Was One Of The Top Doctors In My Field. I Was Also An Opioid Addict.” Marie Claire. February 25, 2019. Accessed August 14, 2019.
Berge, Keith H; et al. “Chemical Dependency and the Physician.” Mayo Clinical Proceedings. July 2009. Accessed August 14, 2019.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Stress and Addiction: Using Drugs to Cope with Stress and Addiction as a Stress Result.” 2005. Accessed August 2, 2019.
New York Academy of Sciences. “Chronic Stress, Drug Use, and Vulnerability to Addiction.” October 2008. Accessed August 2, 2019.