Drug addicted nurse stories have begun appearing more frequently in news outlets across the nation. The frequency with which prescription drug addiction is being reported among health care professionals is alarming. These stories should promote better research into how to provide addiction recovery and support to people in the medical field who struggle with addiction.
One nurse reported that her addiction began almost three years after she started working in a hospital. Feeling that her medical knowledge gave her superior understanding, she began using intravenous drugs recreationally. At first, she had no intention to start using drugs. She didn’t have pain that needed to be managed. Having accidentally taken some IV pain medication home from work, she kept it in her medicine cabinet for more than a week before injecting it out of curiosity. Her curiosity led to a drug experience that set her on a ruinous course of addiction. This nurse continued her drug use for several years before being caught and losing her license.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Registered Nurses are the biggest group of health care workers with more than 2.4 million jobs. In 2003, over 92% of these workers were women. Nurses may be vulnerable to substance abuse for a variety of reasons, including exhaustion, stress and opportunity.
Most hospital workers rotate 12-hour shifts every day. On-call work shifts may last for 24–36 hours. While fatigue has long been the attributable cause of multiple mistakes, no global standards are in place to regulate scheduling or hours worked in the medical profession. Fatigue or exhaustion can make health care providers feel they need drugs to stay alert during their shifts.
The patient load in a busy hospital can be an enormous burden on nurses. Because nurses outnumber doctors, their role is to provide basic medical care to every patient on the premises. Day and night, this can mean endless tasks and rotations. The stress of this strenuous work schedule can be a contributing factor to addiction issues.
Nurses understand how to get and use drugs. The job factors may increase the likelihood that they want to use drugs and their work setting increases their access to drugs. While hospitals have multiple checks and balances in place for diverting opioids and other medications, people who are creative and clever may still find a way to procure drugs.
Addiction Among Health Care Professionals on the Rise
The stories of nurses addicted to drugs are frequent enough to cause concern. In general, drug abuse among health care professionals is a problem that significantly impairs their ability to do their jobs and can jeopardize the lives of their patients. According to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, a nurse’s likelihood for addictive behaviors and substance abuse varies based on their position. Psychiatric and critical nurses are more likely to use drugs, while oncology nurses are more likely to drink alcohol. An anonymous survey of Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists conducted in 1999 showed that 10% abused controlled substances used in their practices.
Health care professionals have access to controlled substances, including narcotics. Leftover drugs from patient use should be disposed of according to legal and hospital protocol. Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence illuminates multiple ways that nurses and doctors confiscate oral and intravenous forms of drugs for personal use. Medication dispensing has become increasingly automated. Many health care facilities use Pyxis or other automated systems whose safeguards include a two-person process of verification, but even these can be bypassed by skilled operators.
Many hospitals are already understaffed and claim not to have the time or personnel available to provide more intensive monitoring of their employees to screen for substance abuse. Regulation or accountability measures that could be strengthened include:
- Hospital employee drug tests
- Increased staffing or staffing guidelines
- Monitoring and peer accountability
It is vital that recovery resources are available to medical professionals who are caught abusing drugs or alcohol. Because of the disciplinary action after such an event will usually result in the removal of the individual’s nursing licenses, they are often at an even greater risk of substance abuse.
Road to Recovery
Narcotic diversion is a fireable offense that is reported to medical boards. Such an incident could cripple the career of any health care professional, making it difficult to find work. These consequences can cause people who want to get help to remain isolated and alone in their addiction. For these individuals, the road to recovery is often a challenging one.
Fortunately, the stigma of addiction is beginning to be replaced by efforts to provide help. There are many state agencies and other organizations that provide support to medical professionals who struggle with mental health issues or drug and alcohol addiction. For example, the Pennsylvania Nurse Peer Assistance Program provides the following recovery support services:
- Confrontation or intervention
- Assessment and treatment arrangements
- Ongoing monitoring with licensees, doctors and employers
- Representation at disciplinary hearings
- Referral of nurses with criminal charges
- Training and educational opportunities
The medical community is seeking to understand the vulnerability of well-intentioned employees whose mental health issues or other personal issues lead them to substance abuse.
Gaba, David M. et al. “Fatigue among Clinicians and the Safety of Patients.” October 17, 2002. Accessed July 13, 2019.
National Council of State Boards of Nursing. “Substance Use Disorder in Nursing.” Accessed July 13, 2019.
Pennsylvania Nurse Peer Assistance Program. “Services.” Accessed July 13, 2019.
U.S. Department of Labor. “Quick Facts on Registered Nurses.” Accessed July 13, 2019.