No one is exempt from the dangers of drug use and addiction. Individuals from a variety of industries are faced with the constant risk of substance misuse, especially those people working in high-stress professions. This includes the medical industry, which is now facing an alarming problem. Health care professionals and nurses experience substance abuse issues at almost the same rate as the general public.
The Uniqueness of Drug Addiction among Health Care Professionals
This issue of drug abuse and addiction is deemed to be a silent epidemic but is hardly unique. In fact, over 100,000 healthcare professionals are believed to suffer drug dependence in the United States. This includes all health care workers who have access to substances, not limited to physicians, surgeons, pharmacists, registered nurses, anesthesiologists, dentists, and veterinarians. In the nursing population alone, the prevalence of drug abuse stands at approximately 10%, which is also parallel to the usage rate of the general population.
One immense problem is that drug abuse and addiction among health care workers is hard to detect and often goes unnoticed, given the exceptional trust given to the industry. Addicted individuals feel intense shame, guilt, and a fear of losing their reputations, but those in the health care industry are experts in hiding the problem. However, it poses a fatal risk to the public and is a breach of professional ethics. Drug users in the industry are in danger of harming their patients, their colleagues, and even themselves. These consequences in turn have an impact on the facility they are working at, and the medical profession as a whole. Drug abuse and addiction can result in fines and imprisonment, loss of employment, and license suspension.
The Common Drugs of Choice Among Medical Professionals
While healthcare professionals are as likely as the general public to abuse illegal drugs, they are more likely to misuse prescription drugs, such as the following:
- Inhalants and nasal sprays
- Opiates and other painkillers
- Sedatives and tranquilizers
- Narcotics like oxycodone and fentanyl
Usually, they take these drugs to deal with temporary situations, such as a stressful day or a problem at home, but even just a single use often leads to a dependence or addiction.
It’s Tempting: Pressures and Opportunities
Health care professionals are burdened with daily job-related stress, such as long working hours and day-to-day hefty responsibilities. External personal factors, such as health and family issues, also contribute to the problem. On top of these, they are faced with an enormous opportunity – an easy access to the addictive substances. The following examples are just some of the most prevalent factors which might lead healthcare professionals to drug dependency.
- Working Environment and Culture: Health care professionals, especially nurses and caregivers, work in fast-paced shifts packed with operational tasks and loads of paperwork. Some even work beyond the scheduled shifts, skipping rest breaks and meal times to keep up with the patient load assigned to them. One motivation to drug abuse is to relieve the stress brought by this stressful working environment.
- Heavy Responsibilities at Work: Immense pressure burdens health care workers as many people’s lives depend on their expertise. Patients rely on them and entrust them with their health that so often they have to make split-second, life-and-death decisions. The weight of this responsibility becomes more difficult to handle over time, leading them to resort to drug abuse to be relieved.
- Self-Prescription and Self-Treatment: Medical professionals are more likely to diagnose and medicate themselves, not only because of their confidence in their knowledge but also due to the lack of monitoring of individuals within the industry. Once started, a single misuse of prescription drugs can lead to dependency and eventually, addiction.
- Personal Problems: Health care workers are normal people too. They are troubled with problems such as family concerns, personal relationships, workplace issues, financial difficulties, and physical and mental health illnesses. Just like any other individual, they are also likely to turn to medicines, such as painkillers, antidepressants, and other prescription drugs to mitigate stress and physical or emotional pain. Initially, the misuse might help boost performance at work, but might also gradually turn into a dependency. For those with existing mental illnesses, drug use can even intensify pre-existing mental health conditions, resulting in increased anxiety, depression, or psychotic behaviors.
- Easy Access to Substances: While healthcare professionals aren’t unlike many other people to turn to drugs to cope with pain and life struggles, what sets them apart is their easy access to these addictive substances. They have daily exposure to prescription medications: physicians have the privilege to write the prescriptions while nurses who administer these to the patients are also exposed in terms of their proximity to the supplies. Their networks of professional contacts also ease their access to these substances while some even resort to stealing from their patients to feed their own addiction, especially when the dependence has grown beyond what they are able to afford.
A combination of these occupational and personal pressures coupled with a ready environmental opportunity makes the temptation of drug abuse hard to resist. These are also the main reasons why health care professionals are at a higher risk for drug addiction.
Drug Abuse and Addiction as a Forbidden Topic
While the existing epidemic of drug abuse and addiction among healthcare professionals is getting a silent treatment industry-wide, it is also deemed a forbidden topic as early as those in medical and nursing schools are concerned. It’s just not spoken of and often simply brushed aside, which is not helping in solving the problem.
According to researcher Lisa Merlo, medical and nursing schools fail to educate students about the disease of addiction. Most schools only include a few lectures on the topic, but there is a noticeable lack of adequate courses focused on substance addiction itself. As such, students may feel immune to the disorder. They may study its treatment, but the reality is that they are also at risk of the addiction just like any other individual.
Addiction education needs to be proactively woven into the curricula of medical programs. Its focus should not only be among the patients but should also include the health care professionals themselves. This first step in solving this silent epidemic of drug abuse and addiction is prevention – instilling awareness among the medical students and making them understand the factors uniquely present within the industry.
A Chance of Recovery
According to the American Nurses Association (ANA), drug addiction is treatable. It only gets worse if left untreated, due to the risky chances of overdoses, accidents, and chronic effects of the disease. Hospitals and other medical facilities should establish effective educational programs that teach its employees how to recognize and intervene with co-workers who may be under substance abuse and addiction. Apart from this, support systems among peers and close supervision among colleagues are also effective ways to monitor the problem. Most importantly, it should be emphasized that being in the healthcare industry itself is one of the major risks, that’s why utmost care and awareness should be instilled to the members of the industry themselves.