Substance Abuse In Health Care

Doctors and nurses account for some of the highest rates of addiction in the workforce. According to USA Today, “Across the country, more than 100,000 doctors, nurses, technicians, and other health professionals struggle with abuse or addiction, mostly involving narcotics such as oxycodone and fentanyl.”

Like many other working professionals facing an addiction, a medical professional might have multiple reasons for turning to drugs or alcohol. They could be looking for a way to stay alert on an all-day or overnight shift or a way to escape the emotional pain from a day of hard decisions and upsetting outcomes.

What sets doctors and nurses apart from other professionals is their accessibility to highly sought-after drugs — because it’s easier for them to get the drugs, it’s easier to create or feed an addiction.

The rate at which doctors and nurses suffer from addiction may be high, but this subgroup of people also has a high rate of recovery when they get treatment.

Signs Of Addiction Within Medical Professionals

Recognizing drug or alcohol dependence in doctors or nurses can be difficult because many are considered to be highly functional addicts. This means that they are able to maintain their career, home life, and substance abuse for a period of time without others noticing.

Common signs of addiction in doctors and nurses include:

  • Preferring night shifts, where there is less supervision and more access to medication
  • Falling asleep on the job or in-between shifts
  • Volunteering often to administer Narcotics to patients
  • Anxiety about working overtime or extra shifts
  • Taking frequent bathroom breaks or unexplained absences
  • Smelling of alcohol or excessively using breath mints or mouthwash
  • Extreme financial, relationship, or family stress
  • Glassy eyes or small pupils
  • Unusually friendly relationship with doctors that prescribe medications
  • Incomplete charting or repeated errors in paperwork

Why Medical Professionals Turn To Drugs Or Alcohol

There are many unique aspects of a doctor or nurse’s profession that make them more likely than those in other occupations to form a substance addiction.

A common reason that medical professionals may be tempted to abuse substances such as oxycodone or fentanyl is due to the easy access they have to powerful prescription medications that aren’t properly accounted for as they are administered. They also have an extensive understanding of the effects these substances have on an individual, and this may motivate them to try to mimic these sensations in themselves in order to produce a high or euphoria.

Along with their unpredictable and exhausting work hours, medical professionals are required to make spur-of-the-moment decisions regarding their patients’ health and wellbeing. If they feel responsible for a certain outcome or come to regret a choice that was made, this can greatly affect their emotions and mental state and lead to substance abuse.

The Effects Of Addiction In The Workplace

Addicted medical professionals are more likely than their non-addicted colleagues to cause an accident in the workplace or to neglect patients’ health. They may be distracted on the job or abruptly leave important appointments or surgical procedures to use drugs.

Sometimes I’d be standing in the operating room and it’d look like I had the flu. So I’d excuse myself and I’d run into the bathroom, eat 10 [Tylenols with codeine], and in maybe five or 10 minutes I’d be normal again.

- Richard Ready, former chief resident of neurosurgery at a prominent Chicago hospital, LA Times

Doctors and nurses suffering from addiction are not only putting their own health at risk, but they are also endangering the wellbeing of patients in their care. It may be hard for a medical professional to accept they have an addiction; the sooner that the addiction is faced head on, however, the better the outcome will be. Addressing addiction early can help prevent accidents on the job or preempt the neglect of important signs of health issues in patients.

Medical Professionals Substance Abuse Statistics



According to the Journal of Clinical Nursing, approximately 20% of all nurses struggle with an addiction to drugs or alcohol.


in 10

1 in 10 physicians will fall into drug or alcohol abuse at some point in their lives, mirroring the general population.



Physicians who receive treatment and participate in ongoing monitoring have a low rate of relapse; one study found that 71% were still sober, licensed, and employed after 5 years.

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Treatment For Addiction Among Medical Professionals

While doctors and nurses are in a highly regarded and respected line of work, they are certainly not immune to addiction. Fortunately, there are treatment programs that cater specifically to medical professionals and offer them a fresh and healthy start.

There are a number of states that offer programs to help doctors and nurses recover from an addiction while ensuring they won’t lose their license or practice. These programs also help guide medical professionals through recovery and provide ways to avoid triggers once back in the workplace.

Aspects that addiction treatment for medical professionals may address include:

  • Restoring your career and reputation
  • Returning to a professional practice
  • Addressing licensing and disciplinary matters
  • Avoiding potential triggers inside and outside of the workplace
  • Participating in monitoring programs
  • Establishing continued aftercare

There is definitely reason for a medical professional to be optimistic while in recovery, as they share a much higher than average rate of maintaining sobriety after treatment.

Success stems from being enrolled in a treatment program where the staff members are familiar with treating medical professionals and the challenges that come with this type of addiction. Not unlike programs that cater to law enforcement and firefighters, these treatment programs are tailored to the addiction and recovery struggles which are inherent in the profession. Staff members will work alongside you to get to the root of what caused your addiction and guide you through the process of restoring your health. If you are a doctor or nurse facing an addiction and you need help finding a treatment center, contact a treatment provider today.